Music Features

The Thermals: Live at Union Transfer, Philadelphia, 5/25/13

The last time I went to a show on my own, I was 22, fresh to Philly, and of the mindset that it was totally fine for a girl to go to the Khyber by herself if the rest of her friends hadn’t heard of Beirut yet. This time around, going to a new (to me) venue, I had the decency to be somewhat ashamed of my solo status, and figured that my dollar-store notepad would serve as social armor. I hid at the bar -- the last refuge of the nearly 30-something at an all ages show -- and literally wrote by candlelight:  “Why aren’t there bar stools? Why is my well whiskey seven dollars? Where are the men lining up to buy me drinks just because I have boobs? I have been woefully misinformed.”

Union Transfer is no Khyber (R.I.P.). It’s a polished establishment with several bars, warehouse ceilings, and a sparkling clean ambiance (well, under properly dim lighting conditions, anyway). I’m not sure I’ve ever shied away from the pit at a show, but as somebody with a phobia of anyone born in the '90s, I really appreciated being able to hug the bar and avoid the jumpy masses up front. For a while it was just me and an older woman occupying the only barstool; she was graying, drinking something through a straw, and calmly knitting a scarf the whole night through. “I’m that old lady and this notebook is my knitting,” I jotted down. Journalism and metaphors at their finest.
“Did I just seriously leave a tab open? Do promo tickets grow on trees? Well whiskey sure doesn’t. If somebody recognizes me, I’m going to pull a Liz Lemon and yell 'NOPE, HIPSTER NONSENSE' before storming out.”
Before I tackle the Thermals, credit where its due: the two opening acts, both local and very well chosen thematically, were infectiously fun. Cayetana gave off an early Sleater-Kinney vibe (above and beyond the three-girl composition) and Hop Along’s vocalist had a Courtney Love rasp over a backing band slightly reminiscent of No Doubt. It was refreshing to see local bands so well represented and attended.
“Just had to borrow a pen from the bartender. Super awkward. Also, note to self: the candle holder isn’t a glass and will probably kill you if you drink from it.”
This wasn’t my first Thermals show, and I doubt it will be my last, but I’ve never had occasion to pay so much attention. The reason this group is so amazing live is precisely the reason why their LPs might suffer slightly in the ratings department: the Thermals are tight, solid and reliable. Devotees (read: nobody) will remember my preference for lo-fi, and it may be why I’ve clung to the Thermals’ grungy, spastic energy since More Parts Per Million. I was a freshman and it was their freshman release, but the passing years haven’t brought much musical evolution (although perhaps lyrically, but I’ll leave that to the studio release reviewers) for the Portland threesome, apart from some studio polish.
Loving their signature frenetic energy as much as I do, stability doesn’t pose a problem for me. But it does mean that, for better or for worse, new releases seem instantly familiar and self-derivative. More of the same isn’t a bad thing, and frankly it’s the best thing for live music. Audiences go to hear what they already know and love, and the mark of a great set list is an appeal to that desire. I decided early on in my “career” as a “critic” (my sarcasm couldn’t get any heavier, obviously) that a perfect set list moves from a well-loved opener into a few new tracks, then keeps the crowd energetic with old favorites interspersed with a few newbies. The last song of the last encore should always provoke ecstatic screams. The Thermals hit almost every mark.
We all know bands tour to promote new albums, but the Thermals know what’s up: only six songs on the impressive 22-song set list were from their latest, Desperate Ground. The opener was indeed a new track, but quickly we were Returning to the Fold. While Fuckin’ A was sadly underrepresented with only one track, it was by far the best of the album -- How We Know.
“Some guy is too excited, buys me a shot, I talk him out of law school.”
What struck me is just how quickly the show passed. I had to race to keep track, and by the time it was all over (on a glorious No Culture Icons note, truly the perfect encore selection), I was shocked that an hour had gone by. I’d hoped to have more time to savor the story -- and the Thermals are so good at storycraft -- but realized too late that the story dissolves without having the tidy encasement of an album to give it direction. If I could have followed the hero’s journey that I so associate with this group, it would have vacillated from prodigal pilgrim to bloodthirsty vengeance-seeker to lovesick fool. But live shows are for being aurally overwhelmed and kinetically over-stimulated, not for poring over liner notes. 
I speak from experience and I'll stick to my guns: the First Unitarian is a much better venue for this kind of show. Religious references notwithstanding, a stuffy church basement full of smuggled 40s just makes more sense for a band like the Thermals, who don't quite fit at the revamped Spaghetti Warehouse. Better to sell out at the Church than have tickets left over at 10 p.m., I say. Probably good that I don't call the shots, though. Just ask the bumbling 24 year old who walked out of there clinging desperately to the last copy of The Body, The Blood, The Machine on vinyl: the Thermals leave you giddy, no matter the venue.
For those interested, I made you a Spotify present: The Thermals Set List, Union Transfer Philadelphia, 5/25/13.