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When you explain the potpourri of backgrounds in The Boxer Rebellion, it sounds like the set-up for a really terrible joke: a Nashville-native, two Englishmen, and an Australian walk into a bar… Of course, there’s no punch line to this unless “and blow the audience away with carefully crafted songs that sound like a mishmash of The National’s melancholy, the dreamy instrumentation of Explosions in the Sky, and the hyped guitar riffs of U2” somehow tickles your funny bone. But enough of the tragic attempts at humor, because The Boxer Rebellion seriously rocked their Boston show.
The four-piece indie rock band graced the Sinclair’s stage on Saturday night, the Cambridge venue serving as the last stop on their US tour for promotion of their most recent album, Promises. Despite the recent release of the band’s fourth studio LP, The Boxer Rebellion chose to play tracks from several of their albums. The band was in no rush to bombard the audience with promoting Promises; instead, they took their time in getting to the new music.
Opening the show with “Semi-Automatic” from 2009’s Union, the crowd did their best to dance along with the semi-dreamy, hazy opening of the song, until the pace picked up a little over two minutes in, blue and white strobe lights heightening the energy behind The Boxer Rebellion as they played. Following that was “The Runner,” from 2011’s The Cold Still, a track that was much more overtly high-energy with a pulsating, consistent drum beat provided by drummer Piers Hewitt under Nathan Nicholson’s signature, somewhat-monotone crooning of their thoughtful lyrics, “Dissipate in isolation/Irretrievable salvation/The only thing/The only thing you need.” By the end of the song, guitarist Todd Howe and bassist Adam Harrison harmonized that line as Nicholson belted over it—although it was only the second song of the evening, it was a stand out performance of the night.
By the third song, the band was willing to showcase the new jams; the crowd was elated as the loud, steady drumming for their newest single, “Diamonds”, began. It was interesting to watch the new material juxtaposed with the older music—there was a drastic jump from “The Runner” to “Diamonds,” despite both songs being high-energy performances, and the progression of The Boxer Rebellion’s sound became apparent throughout the night.
For example, the lyrics in “You Belong to Me,” the ninth track on Promises, where Nicholson pounds away behind the safety of his piano, repeatedly singing the somewhat creepy line, “You belong to me,” making it a song with a darker, more personal feel. Compared with the lyrics (and sound) of “Spitting Fire,” also from 2009’s Union, (“What the rest did/I was average/But I don’t mind,” and “I spit fire on lovers and liars/And you/You don’t believe me”), the I/you on The Boxer Rebellion’s newer tracks somehow felt much more real and much more personal, unlike the storytelling sort of vibe that accompanied their earlier tracks. There was a distance in the older songs performed by The Boxer Rebellion that was bridged by the new material, giving the audience both an outside and inside view.
Following a poppy, high-energy performance of the new “Always,” and “If You Run” (from the original soundtrack of the film, Going the Distance), a song that features atmospheric guitar riffs reminiscent of U2, Nathanson informed the audience that it was drummer Hewitt’s birthday.
“Um, can we wish Piers a happy birthday?” he asked, laughing. “One of my favorite things to do is flip off Piers, so could everyone do me a favor and flip him off?” The audience was more than willing to comply with the frontman’s request, and following the mass flipping of the bird, the venue sang happy birthday.
Other stand out performances of the night included Promises’ “New York,” which Nathanson prefaced by addressing the Boston crowd with a bashful, “I know you guys are rivals,” before launching into it. During the song, both Howe and Harrison abandoned their usual instruments to assist Hewitt with percussion, creating an almost tribal beat to accompany Nathanson’s piano and vocals. Following the completion of the track, fans were delighted by Nathan’s impromptu follow-up where he substituted the song’s repeated belt of “in New York” with “in Boston”.
Although there was generally a high energy in the majority of the performances, The Cold Still’s “No Harm,” a more depressing track, made it into the setlist, along with “Caught by the Light,” another slower track. The band ended up playing for nearly an hour and a half, finding time to incorporate the upbeat “Fragile” and “Take Me Back”, both newer songs, along with “Evacuate”, “Keep Moving”, and “Take Me Back”.
For their encore, The Boxer Rebellion chose tracks from several of their albums, opting to open the encore with the moody, popular “Step Out Of The Car” from The Cold Still, followed by the new, meandering, aptly-named “Dream”, and finishing off the night with the impassioned “The Gospel of Goro Adachi”, the final performance again punctuated by the Sinclair’s strobe lights.
Although The Boxer Rebellion gave a strong performance, their opener, Fossil Collective, is also worth taking note of—the audience was beyond receptive of their modest, careful folk performance. With two guitars and a banjo, the three men of Fossil Collective came together to create a clean, simple sound and killer harmonies that served as the perfect warm-up for the headliners.