It's got to be tough when people just want to hear your old songs. This is the situation in which the Antlers, the indie rock band of Peter Silberman, Darby Cicci, and Michael Lerner, found themselves on Saturday night when they played to a sold-out Webster Hall. The band has been touring in support of their newest LP, Familiars, which came out earlier this summer on ANTI-. While the set drew heavily from new material, those clearly weren't the songs that the audience had turned out to hear.
The Antlers are, in a lot of ways, a totally different band than they were at the beginning. This reviewer has seen them perform live roughly a dozen times over the last five years, and the contrast between their early shows and their performances now is stark. They used to walk onstage wordlessly, play a handful of songs from Hospice (with funereal flowers piled on their instruments), and then exit without saying anything to the audience. They were dealing in tragedy: Hospice is an emotionally exhausting album that is staggeringly beautiful, but defies set-long banter or gratuitous showmanship.
Now, things are a little different. The band has a much more approachable persona. They sell dog bandanas at their merch booth, and not all of their songs are about dying. Change can be good. There was a sense on Saturday night that Silberman and company were having a great time onstage, and audiences pick up on that. The set opened with the sweeping, cinematic "Palace," which sounded even better live than on the recording. "Doppelgänger," also from Familiars, followed with a horn section that wouldn't have sounded out of place in the opening credits of House of Cards.
But then the band did something surprising: In the middle of the set, they played three songs from Hospice: "Kettering," "Sylvia," and the rarely-performed "Epilogue" with an extended outro. It was the sort of performance that gives you chills. The clear crowd favorite was "Sylvia," and from her vantage point on Webster Hall's balcony, this reviewer could see a dozen or so young men presumably in their early twenties belting every lyric with Silberman like their lives depended on it. It was an amusing sight, but it also spoke to the incredibly powerful nature of the band's early work. It may be cinematic and musically interesting, but no one was singing their lungs out to "Doppelgänger," Silberman included.
Amazingly, the main set didn't include any cuts from 2011's Burst Apart. The encore, however, featured two: "I Don't Want Love," and the beloved set-closer "Putting the Dog to Sleep." It was a solid concert, but the sheer power of the tracks from Hospice was tough to match. Nothing from Familiars seems to achieve the resonance of that early record, and while the crowd (this fan included) seemed thrilled to hear the new material live, it's that rendition of "Epilogue" that we'll all be searching for on YouTube and bragging about weeks from now.
The Antlers are an extraordinarily talented band, and they're doing what any extraordinarily talented band does: they're evolving. It's got to be tough to move forward when your initial release was so singularly powerful, but they're doing it anyway, and they're doing it well. Familiars may not have the impact on listeners that Hospice did, but it's undeniably impressive that these musicians have continued to forge more complex identities for themselves as lyricists, musicians, and performers. The Antlers have been a fun band to watch for the last several years, and one can only hope that there are many more records (and sold-out shows) ahead for them.