Amidst crackling bolts of lightening, swerving madly to avoid large lakes forming in the streets, I was careening down from the North Shore in a torrential downpour to see Switchfoot at the Paradise in Boston. I amusingly thought of biblical analogies, apocalyptic epic floods and such, but given the band’s Christian rock beginnings, as much as I appreciate a helping hand when facing down that scary first paragraph, that was just too easy.
This is not the sort of band I would normally trumpet praises for. It’s less the “Christian rock” bit that puts me off, but rather phrases like “mainstream major label success” and “certified double platinum – 2.6 million copies sold”. There are plenty of mainstream artists I enjoy listening to – U2.. Bob Dylan.. Bruce Springsteen.. Lifehouse, even. With those artists, though, I don’t feel the need to add my voice to the chorus, as it were. But after seeing Switchfoot’s breathtaking performance at the Paradise, I’m impressed with these guys on so many levels, I can’t help myself.
They could clearly fill larger venues, but they chose to play the 650-capacity Paradise, and in speaking to a few long-time fans after the show, it seems they often play more intimate clubs like this. The connection they have to their music, and to their audience, is deeply moving. As emotionally swept up I get during live concerts, it’s not often I’ll get teary, but they definitely had that effect. Another admirable trait: they’ve been major label artists, but they have an indie sensibility. Three years ago, they realized that being on Columbia Records might stifle their creativity and cause them to lose connection with their fans, so they formed lowercase people records, and got a distribution deal with Atlantic.
Musically, they can be a raging sea or a calm, clear lake. Jon Forman’s lyrics are raw, honest, and life-affirming. They have a strong following in the Christian community, but they’re not “preachy”. It’s more like “we’re imperfect humans, life can be f*cked up, but even if things are a mess, there’s hope”. Apart from the lone woman yelling out “JESUS!” in the middle of one of their older songs about redemption (a subject matter dealt with by many non-Christian songwriters), I wouldn’t necessarily label them as a “Christian rock band”, as their themes of desperation, soul-searching, and finding faith in one’s life are universal.
I don’t know if they usually do all ages shows, but this sold out crowd ranged from teens and early 20s and even younger kids with parents, to middle aged types and older couples. Quite a diverse mix. I was pondering this and admiring the stage set, which included a backdrop of their new Hello Hurricane album and a few of those seagulls eerily in flight above the stage, as the lights went down and the band took the stage. Some guy was shining a spotlight in my direction and I briefly wondered if I might be stopped from taking photos. I noticed others looking at me, or rather just past me, and I turned to see lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Jon Foreman perched up there on the lower balcony with us as he started singing the first song on Hello Hurricane, the ethereal and hopeful “Needle and Haystack Life”. The way he sang this – a lone, emotionally vulnerable presence – gave me chills and jolted me immediately into that moment one usually strives throughout a live performance to achieve.
I sensed an emotional delicacy, a heartfelt sincerity, and a sense of quiet solitude that drew me in like a magnet.
You breathe it in
the highs and lows
we call it living
in this needle and haystack life
I’ve found miracles there in your eyes
it’s no accident we’re here tonight
we are once in a lifetime.
Jon explained that they’d be performing the new album in its entirety, from start to finish, and would then come back out to play audience-chosen selections from their other albums (he jokingly referred to “Hello Hurricane” as Switchfoot’s support act). I can’t think of a better way to introduce and bring the new material into the “family fold”, to create a feeling of continuity for what is quite a departure from their older work. More varied instrumentation and moods; harder here, more artsy there. And yet, even though it was just released a month ago, their fans were already familiar enough with the songs to sing along, which added to the warm, communal feel that evening.
From “Needle and Haystack Life” Jon descended down to the stage to join the others, which then led into “Mess of Me”, a song which blew my mind when I saw them perform it on Conan just recently, and which live was over the top in its gut-wrenching immediacy. I also really loved how the seamless transitions from soft to scorching was preserved in this club setting. That’s often a complaint of mine, that bands who have quieter material choose to leave it at home when performing live, or decide to “rock it out” thereby ruining it, or that the sound is mixed so loud that every pretty ballad becomes hardcore industrial drone. But in this case, the sound level was perfect, the acoustics at the Paradise are excellent, and Switchfoot were delightfully unapologetic in presenting their softer songs and lovely little musical touches – xylophone, acoustic piano, accordion and harmonica – with all shadings and nuances intact.
“Your Love Is A Song” was introduced as being “on the subject of grace”, and “The Sound” was dedicated to the man who inspired it, American civil rights activist John Perkins. “About the loudest sound we can make as a human soul… a song about love” led into “Enough To Let Me Go” and then “Free” (“inside this shell, there’s a prison cell, I try to live the light of day”), ending with Jon pounding ferociously on the drums. There were spoken introductions and brief explanations of the songs which, rather than being distracting, created a kind of spoken word/musical interplay which reinforced the lyrics and gave the songs emotional depth.
“This is where you go over to your vinyl record and flip it over, and this is side B”. After the title track, “Hello Hurricane”, there was an amusing introduction from Jon for the lovely “Always”, “Thank you to my mom for making me take piano lessons, and to Jimmy Page for convincing me to quit”, though the lessons paid off with a pretty acoustic piano which sounded fantastic. “Bullet Soul” then brought back the raging rock ‘n’ roll Switchfoot persona, and Jon was out in the audience (as he was all evening), bellowing the question, “are you ready to go?”
Keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas added accordion accompaniment to the delicately gorgeous “Yet”, with Jon mixing in some harmonica. He had the audience repeating the line “if it doesn’t break”, “if it doesn’t break”…
“If it doesn’t break your heart it isn’t love
if it doesn’t break your heart it’s not enough
it’s when you’re breaking down
with your insides coming out
that’s when you find out what your heart is made of
and you haven’t lost me yet.”
“Sing It Out” had very beautiful and gut-wrenching singing from Jon at the front edge of the stage, completely at one with the audience, and then soft strumming on guitar, slowly joined by the others. The final song of the album, “Red Eyes”, was followed with a “Needle and Haystack” reprise.
Stunning perfection, and a lovely way to showcase the sheer beauty of Hello Hurricane.
Before the brief intermission, we were told to Twitter our requests or toss them onto the stage for what they’d perform in the second half. How cool. They then went on to perform 12 more songs (plus a 2-song encore) to a clearly adoring, swaying, singing mass.
I’m not as familiar with their earlier work, so I’ll just say that some of the songs were “Stars”, “Shadow Proves The Sunshine”, “Oh! Gravity”, “On Fire” (with chorus of 650 and harmonica), “24” (wonderful; acoustic guitar during the verses, accordian and lovely backing vocals), “Company Car”, “Love Is The Moment”, “Meant To Live”, and “Dare You To Move”. And a favorite quote of the evening, “hope is not something you can have as a possession; hope is seeing things as they are not”.
For the encore, they performed “Daisy” and “This Is Your Life”. And we all sang those few lines once again from “Needle and Haystack Life”, a poignant and touching end to an emotionally uplifting evening.
“In this needle and haystack life
I’ve found miracles there in your eyes
it’s no accident we’re here tonight
we are once in a lifetime.”