As so many of the best concerts do, CHVRCHES’ set on Tuesday night began with a fire hazard. I spent the evening holed up with the Scottish electro-pop trio at The Heath in New York, a venue only accessible by an elevator that seemed to be operated by a series of hand-held pulleys. There was no other way out and no other way in. Like the band, I was there to stay.
It’s been a relatively quick rise from Glasgow to the Billboard charts for Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty (truly Scottish, aren’t they?). CHVRCHES formed and began writing in October of 2011, released their first official single in November of 2012, were signed in January of 2013, debuted their acclaimed full length debut The Bones of What You Believe in September, and on December 10th, they performed an intimate private concert for Sirius XM contest winners on the last night of their first sold-out U.S. tour.
The unassuming trio floated on stage, introducing themselves via the album favorite “We Sink.” The first song revealed what would become a running theme of the evening: watching the audience exuberantly bop along to melodic beats that belied fierce lyrics like “I’ll be a thorn in your side/’til you die.” It’s difficult to guess from their three-people-in-a-line-singing setup where exactly their lyrics originates. But it became clear when the group took their first break after fluorescent single, “Lies,” to chat with audience.
This one-on-one time is where CHVRCHES became exceptional as a concert experience. As a genre, electro-pop isn’t always engaging on a personal level; Mayberry’s lilting lead vocals are certainly emotive, but performance-wise she plays it straight, almost with an indifference to the powerful words she’s singing; perhaps because she’s already lived them and now they’re ours, the audience’s, to give meaning to.
Still, they revealed a side of themselves not evident on their album,charming the audience with stories about “meeting Gandalf” before playing David Letterman. Mayberry had a lot of Tolkein-themed jokes intended for Sir Ian McKellen including, “How did you get here, on a big f—ing eagle?!” and “You shall not pass this hallway!”
Alas, she held off because as her bandmates reminded her, they’re now members of an exclusive club where they’re supposed to pretend that the McKellens of the world don’t faze them. Anthems like “Gun” and “Tether” have helped earn them a spot in that club, but also highlight a weakness that is evident on the album at times, and even more so live: Mayberry’s lead shines, but the group’s harmonies can seem particularly clunky amongst distinctively sharp synths and percussive samples from Cook and Doherty. They wrapped the hour-long show, as they should, with their most triumphant track, “Mother We Share,” inspiring the audience to pack a little closer, sing a little louder and sway a little sway-ier.
The CHVRCHES concert airs tonight on SiriusXM’s SiriusXMU channel at 9:00 p.m. ET.