Bands break up. It happens, sometimes acrimoniously — as in the case of the literal blood feud between the two Gallagher brothers, who made up the English rock group Oasis until one of them threatened to smash a guitar into the other’s face — but sometimes amicably. These peaceful breakups make for much worse stories for the annals of rock history, but are much better, practically speaking, for everyone involved. The fans get proper notice of the demise of the object of their fandom, and the band gets to tell the final act of its story on its own terms, creating a finality that a more tumultuous end fails to reach.
This final act of narrative craftsmanship is what Chairlift set out to do earlier this month in San Francisco. The Brooklyn-based dance music duo played a two-night engagement at Bimbo’s 365 Club on April 7 and 8 as the opening of their farewell tour— at the end of last year, they announced that it was time for lead singer/keyboardist/songwriter Caroline Polachek and bassist/drummer/producer Patrick Wimberly to “take the next step to where [their] passion was pulling” them.
It was a move that made a certain degree of sense. The group, which formed in 2006, was fresh off releasing its third album, “Moth.” That album was the most fully realized expression of its signature sound, a fusion of early ’80s new wave, disco-funk and 2000s R&B. Songs like “Polymorphing” and “Romeo” succeeded on the strength of the combination of Polachek’s deft songwriting and impossibly agile voice and Wimberly’s production: meticulous, but never overly fussy or rigid.
While bands that play music as well-constructed as Chairlift’s sometimes falter when moved out of the hermetically sealed atmosphere of the studio and into live performance, on Friday night, the duo made the transition almost perfectly. The opening act, Miya Folick, set the genre-bending mood of the night well, playing a set that spanned a wide range of styles, from Florence + the Machine-esque torch songs like “God Is A Woman” to punkier tracks like the ’60s-influenced “Pet Body.” Though she acquitted herself nicely, Folick admitted in her stage banter that she was awed by the night’s headliners.
As soon as Chairlift walked on stage, everyone in the audience knew what Folick meant. There’s a certain raw energy in the way Chairlift performs live, especially in a stripped down format. On Friday, the duo was only backed by two additional musicians, who switched between drums, saxophone, guitar and keyboards as necessary as they moved through the band’s three albums.
Nevertheless, their sound felt full, driven by Wimberly’s precise, funky rhythm playing but elevated by Polachek’s effortlessly charismatic performance as frontwoman. On songs like “Show U Off,” which features some of the most astonishingly deft vocal performances I’ve heard in pop music in recent years, she sang as well live as on record. On less strenuous songs, she had more fun with it, lending a playfulness to tracks like “Ch-Ching” and “Moth To A Flame.”
Despite the sheer fun that its more uptempo dance numbers provided, Chairlift made its biggest impact on slower, more contemplative songs. On “No Such Thing As Illusion,” the closing song to “Moth,” a sparse arrangement and more deliberate pace gave Polachek’s breathy, angelic vocals a bit more musical space, allowing it to fill the room.
The highlight of the night, though, was a stripped-down performance of “Met Before,” a single from the pair’s second album, “Something.” At the start of the encore, Polachek and Wimberly walked onto stage again alone, and proceeded to play the song as a duet of just bass and vocals, isolating the song’s beautiful melody and harmonic structure. They asked the crowd to clap along to the beat for percussion, and for a moment, it seemed like we were all part of some community.
Despite the immensely talented performance of the band, and the generally celebratory mood that pervaded the crowd, many of whom had likely been fans since Chairlift’s first album in 2006, there was something somber in the air befitting a farewell tour. Chairlift has never been a particularly popular band — its most popular song, “Bruises,” was a fluke hit that was featured in an iPod Touch commercial — but for just the two hours that it played in that club in San Francisco, it felt as if I was watching the last hurrah of the greatest rock band on earth.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.