As lead singer Dan Smith repeatedly pointed out during Bastille’s headlining set at the Greek Theatre on Sunday, the theme of the night was Super Depressing Songs That Sound Upbeat. It may sound counterintuitive, but the soundscape produced by that mentality is often powerfully cathartic and has launched bands such as Bastille — and perhaps most famously, Twenty One Pilots — to superstardom.
For Bastille, known for radio-hit “Pompeii,” Sunday night’s performance came paired with a dystopian-inspired narrative framework drawn from themes in the band’s 2016 release Wild World. Prior to the set, the ominous, triangular logo of “Wild World Communications” was ever present — on the floating screens, sound equipment, crew jackets, etc. — and a newscaster a la “1984” prepping for a “fake news” telecast occasionally popped up to keep the audience in line.
It was an engaging, if unsettling, setup that felt in line with the grandiose storytelling that Muse consistently weaves into its live shows — particularly visible in “1984”-inspired album The Resistance and the more recent Drones. The danger with such meta-musical concepts, however, is stepping into “gimmick” territory, and while a band such as Muse has the swagger and history to pull it off, in lesser hands, it can serve as a crutch to make a boring show more interesting.
Luckily, the deliberately off-putting “Wild World Communications” didn’t overshadow Bastille’s music, receding into the background during the actual set as a mostly unintrusive reminder of the dystopian theme of the group’s newest album.
What did stand out was the degree to which the band engaged with the audience. During “Flaws” — off of debut studio album Bad Blood — Smith stepped offstage and wound his way through the pit, singing and jumping with the audience until he found himself at the top of the amphitheater’s seated area. Smith returned to the audience again during “Of the Night,” banging a floor-tom drum set up next to the sound booth as the pit below jumped in unison. And finally, during an encore, acoustic rendition of “Two Evils,” both Smith and guitarist Will Farquarson set up shop at the very back of the theater to give those farthest away a feeling of intimacy.
More than physically inserting themselves into the crowd, the members of Bastille also conversed with the crowd between songs, which was a pleasant surprise given that the external “WWCOMMS” storyline could have been used as filler. It was also plainly obvious that the dialogue was unscripted; Smith often repeated himself and then noticed himself doing it, laughing off his awkwardness with the crowd. He also took the time to recognize some handmade signs in the audience, and he very profusely expressed the band’s thanks and seeming surprise at the turnout.
Through the lens of how well Bastille put on a show truly for its fans, all the possible boxes were refreshingly checked. If there’s anywhere the performance faltered, it was in the construction of the songs themselves. Despite Smith’s best efforts — he was wholly energetic, jumping all over the stage — Bastille’s songs are simply not, on the whole, danceable. It’s not an unenjoyable catalog by any means, but the tempos and progressions place the band’s setlist somewhere between indie and rock — firm “head-bopping” territory.
Exceptions included “Of the Night,” which was eminently dance-worthy, and “The Draw,” which, after a few minutes of mellowness, erupted into the most rock-worthy chorus of the night — an impactful sound the song never reaches on its studio recording. Translating indie to concert form is not an insurmountable problem. Indie bands such as Imagine Dragons have successfully transformed their lighter-fare songs to hit harder live with the introduction of solos and drumline breakdowns — live flourishes Bastille’s set would benefit from.
It’s highly doubtful that that missing piece mattered to the Bastille fans familiar enough with the band’s music to instantly recognize each song. Ultimately, while the band’s songs aren’t perfect for inducing large scale jumping and dancing, the audience felt truly involved and was included in the experience — and really, that’s what matters.
Imad Pasha covers film. Contact him at [email protected].