Augustines – The Bowery Ballroom – September 29, 2014
Augustines have become synonymous with the tricky combination of moral victories and abject failures, if not unique, certainly associated with living in New York City. Theirs is a story of name changes, near misses and eventual triumph: Pela splitting into We Are Augustines and Thieving Irons, and then We Are Augustines becoming Augustines. After a performance on his show, it was finally David Letterman—a guy who appreciates tragicomedy—who suggested the band’s debut LP, Rise You Sunken Ships, as a bromide with which to face down struggle. The band took the stage at The Bowery Ballroom last night with a Billboard-charting second record, a movie about their ascendancy recently funded on Kickstarter, Rise, and maybe a bit of a crisis about transitioning from the band that could never get it right to the one that seemingly couldn’t miss.
Lead singer Billy McCarthy kicked off the show with “Headlong into the Abyss,” a song he closed with the coda “It’s good to be home. We’re going the distance.” But this was no conversational promise: The show would end more than two hours later out in front of the venue on the Delancey St. sidewalk. The band marched through their brand of underdog rock, playing “Chapel Song” and the pointed “Cruel City.” The latter prompted McCarthy to issue a pseudo-apology: “I might say some bad things about this town in the songs, but I got love for you all.” The New York City focus rarely left the band’s focus. In fact, McCarthy introduced “Waiting on the Stairs” by yelping, “This one’s for New York”—as if there were anything else to say.
The frontman launched himself from the top edge of the kick drum and brandished the neck of his guitar like a Tommy Gun to the delight of the assembled. An increasingly soft-at-the-edges McCarthy reaching for the top of the room proved to be something of an allegory. If the National stormed out of the NYC market with their willingness to replicate and repeat being miserable despite all evidence to contrary, Augustines continue to mine the against-the-odds narrative, even while the band approaches becoming an overdog. McCarthy still desired connection, perhaps the band’s enduring truism, first taking to the center of the room and then the street outside for an acoustic encore. This commitment to New York City was more than an aesthetic choice, McCarthy, sweating profusely, shed down to his undershirt in the unseasonable humidity of the Lower East Side, surrounded by his people. —Geoff Nelson