The speakers at the Fox Theater blared with the sound of David Bowie’s 1983 hit “Let’s Dance” a few minutes before curtains opened. It was a fitting precursor to the resplendent homage to the ’80s (and all the teen angst packaged alongside it) that transpired on July 23 at a concert by Fun guitarist Jack Antonoff and his bedroom-pop-turned-stadium-rock project Bleachers.
Antonoff was giddy, enthralled to be commandeering a few-hundreds-strong army of devoted fans as he bolted onstage with his guitar in tow. Dressed up in a hefty old-school letterman jacket and a beat-up Mets tank top — perhaps a reference to his modest New Jersey upbringing — Antonoff embodied the “sensitive jock” archetype that Emilio Estevez masterfully captured in “The Breakfast Club.” Couple that with the fluorescent neon lighting plastered on the stage, and the atmosphere was all too reminiscent of Bleachers’ high school-indebted namesake.
Once the powerhouse drum rolls of “Like a River Runs” set in, Antonoff’s riffs mirrored the crowd’s anticipation: The build-up to the song’s exuberant chorus was thrilling. The song itself — a power-pop dirge dedicated to his deceased younger sister — was earworm levels of infectious, with a sing-along chorus that was just begging to be blasted at maximum volume on a boombox. Having hundreds of fans ecstatically singing alongside one another was a moment of pure, unified catharsis — an intertwined unity formed on the shared experience of loss.
Antonoff was overjoyed to be playing at the Fox.
“It’s just a fucking pleasure to be in the Bay — you can’t say that everywhere,” Antonoff explained as he recounted the multitude of Bay Area venues he has frequented throughout his 15-year career as a musician.
At the Fox, the brand of theatrical, confessional pop-rock that Bleachers peddled throughout its debut album, Strange Desire, was translated into a widescreen teenage dream within the theater’s expansive soundstage. Each song burst with a cinematic energy reminiscent of a John Hughes soundtrack at the hands of Antonoff and company. The sticky-sweet, piano-led “Wild Heart” amped itself up a few notches through live, booming drums, making its pleas “to find a way to your wild heart” that much grander. Cooing harmonies, courtesy of Antonoff’s touring mates, breathed a new sense of emotive urgency into the instrumentally sparse “Wake Me.”
If Bleachers’ live gig harkened back to an era where DJ Casey Kasem dominated the airwaves, it never reeked of total ’80s pickpocketing, thanks to a couple of clever tactics strewn throughout the show. Antonoff’s admiration for the unabashedly sentimental hooks that ruled the ’90s manifested itself in his cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams,” a majestic tune that seamlessly blended into the evening’s similarly minded oeuvre. As far as covers were concerned, Antonoff also delighted with a tender, encore-opening cover of Kanye West’s “Only One” that was executed with total finesse.
Bleachers wasn’t merely displaying a showcase of its technical chops: Antonoff cultivated an active, participatory crowd throughout the night. Previewing a Bleachers song — the Talking Heads-esque “Shadow of the City” — for the first time, he paused midway through the performance to set up an impromptu rehearsal of the song’s chorus.
“We need everyone singing,” Antonoff said as he repeatedly sang-recited a single line from the chorus to ensure that everyone got the gist.
Antonoff’s emphasis on audience contribution was no more apparent than in the band’s first closer of the night, the new-wavey “You’re Still a Mystery.” With its “whoa-oh-oh” hook and its soundtrack-worthy chorus, the song was an opportune moment for the crowd to get thrown into the fray. Antonoff directed the crowd as if it were an impromptu acapella choir, controlling its volume and gradually allowing for its harmonizing to fill the concert hall. Once the song’s climax hit in unison with the chorus, confetti cannons burst. It was a truly Brat Pack-worthy scene.
By the time Bleachers concluded its gig with the band’s radio hit “I Wanna Get Better,” Antonoff was reveling in the sheer collective effervescence he had created.
“It’s fucking summer camp out here!” Antonoff exclaimed with glee as the night drew to a close.