I’ve been singing the praises of Fanfarlo since discovering this British band in 2008 at SXSW. Fanfarlo finally played in Chicago for the first time last night (Nov. 9). I was starting to think they were avoiding our fair city for some reason, since they made an earlier U.S. tour that involved traveling straight from California to Philadelphia, bypassing Chicago. But at last, here they were, playing at Schubas. I wondered what kind of turnout Fanfarlo would get, since I often misjudge such things. They didn’t receive much press here in Chicago. In fact, I was irritated by a Chicago Tribune story that hyped the opening band, Freelance Whales, without even mentioning that Fanfarlo was the headline act. As it turned out, the show sold out during the day on Monday — probably due to a combination of the buzz about both bands.
I wasn’t that familiar with Freelance Whales, other than giving the songs on their myspace page one listen, but I liked what I heard. Hailing from Queens, they were a good match with Fanfarlo, playing the sort of rousing sing-along folk anthems that the Arcade Fire is known for. And a lot of the fans at Monday’s show were clearly familiar with the Freelance Whales already, singing right along. Definitely a group worth checking out.
And then it was onto the main act, and Fanfarlo received a similar reception from the audience. I had seen Fanfarlo three times at SXSW gigs last year and this year, and two of those shows were marred by technical difficulties or bad sound. Fanfarlo had no such problems Monday at Schubas, other than two brief moments of bad feedback caused by a musical saw. This was probably the liveliest show I’ve seen by Fanfarlo so far. Singer Simon Balthazar moved around more than at previous shows, doing a little jig of sorts during the instrumental breaks in the songs.
As with Freelance Whales, Fanfarlo is clearly influenced by the Arcade Fire. They play with a similar sense of communal spirit, switching instruments frequently, adding extra drum beats, raising all their voices high in chorus. It’s a little more on the folk end of the rock spectrum, though. While Fanfarlo uses some synth sounds, the emphasis in concert was more on mandolin, violin and acoustic guitar, with Balthazar’s dulcet voice carrying the melodies with assistance from violinist-singer Cathy Lucas.
Fanfarlo played several songs from its debut album, the excellent Reservoir, including “I’m a Pilot,” “Ghosts” and “Luna,” though I was disappointed that the band yet again chose not to play one of my favorite tunes, “Fire Escape.” The show could have been longer — Fanfarlo stopped performing after about an hour, with a number of good songs unplayed. The band did play at least one new song. Actually, I think there were two new songs, but maybe one of those was just some obscure track I failed to recognize.
Fanfarlo left me wanting more, but for that one hour, it sounded wonderful.
Listen to the Sept. 27 NPR interview with Fanfarlo’s Simon Balthazar and Cathy Lucas.