The show was being filmed for a music video, and the crew told people in the front row that they might get photographed for reaction shots. When I mentioned to the couple next to me that a sure fire way to get on camera was to cry, the apparent director turned around from where he was kneeling near the stage and said, “I’ll pay $500 dollars if you do it,” before adding, “but I think you might cry anyway.” In his first performance since breaking up his former band, Girls, Christopher Owens was set to debut an entire album of new material, and it sounded like a tear-jerker.
Having never been to the room before – the “Lodge” at the Regency Ballroom – I arrived early, expecting a dark basement packed with 300 sweaty bodies jockeying for a spot up near the stage. Instead, what I found on the third floor was an experience similar to the Swedish American: a clean, well-lit room in which to listen to live music.
Seats were set out for the show, and on each one was a dated program for the evening, complete with a setlist and band credits, a special theatrical touch that invoked high-art rather than pop rock. Clearly, along with the taping, Owens meant for it to be a special – or at least different – occasion, and had special requirements of the crowd, which some people did not appreciate.
The stage was set with a large backdrop of a dusty road leading out between a forest. Lysandre is a concept album (which Owens has already explained) based around the first Girls tour in 2008. The backdrop signaled the travelogue aspect, as well as a classical element. It could have been a leftover from a community Shakespeare troupe, and when the show began with a theme that would repeat throughout, complete with Jethro Tull-esque flute from Vince Meghroni, there was a definite old world feel.
This theme alternated with roots rock Americana for the first half of the show, a rising energy that then mellowed out. On one track, Owens detailed the rush of arriving in NYC with the band, singing a chorus of “Here we are in New York City, everybody’s listened to me / Rock and roll in NYC” with a Banana Splits meet “New York, New York” upbeat simplicity.
As it switched over to one of the obviously sad songs, “A Broken Heart,” there was a definite comedown. On the first listen, Lysandre is beset with conflicting emotions, the highs of being on the road and meeting sudden popularity, compete with falling in love, and subsequent breakups occur with both. At times, it seems like personal issue ruined what should have been a great time.
On “Here We Go Again,” the album’s fight song, Owens warns, “Don’t try to get me down, don’t try to harsh my mellow” as the guitar player kicks the theme into its highest pitch, angrily stretching the notes out. But elsewhere, it's the exact opposite: in closing the album, there are a succession of goodbyes, with the lament that there were always “a couple hundred people in the way.”
In the show’s encore, Owens resisted falling to his back catalogue, and instead played what seemed to be obvious influences on the sound and themes of Lysandre: into the great wide open of Cat Steven’s “Wild World,” the triumphant loneliness of NYC in Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” pining for love with “Let It Be Me,” and breaking up on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
Against these songs, Lysandre at times risked seeming overly saccharine. (“Kissing and hugging is the air that I breathe/ I’ll always make time for love,” was pushing it in this regard.) But the sunken-eyed Owens – who spoke with an endearing twinge of nervousness between songs – seemed well aware of the risk.
“What if everyone thinks I’m a phony? What if no one gets it? What if everyone gets sick of love songs?” he asks midway through Lysandre. But with a shrug he continues on to the chorus, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, love is in the ear of the listener.”