Shows: Anberlin @ Emo’s


There’s always difficulty in taking declared farewell shows and tours seriously. From “The Last Waltz” to LCD Soundsystem’s big Madison Square Garden finale to bands of more limited general fame like our subjects here, Anberlin, there’s just too much historical data that says “farewell” will eventually turn into, “Well, fair … to say we could get back out there and people will come out to see us again.”

I saw Anberlin on their farewell tour at Emo’s in October 2014, one of my first handful of shows in Austin. Sure looked like they were serious about it at the time. There was even a T-shirt I bought that had “Anberlin 2002-2014” on the front, an unambiguous epitaph. But by now, we know all bands with any modicum of a fanbase have a zombie within them.

So I wasn’t super-surprised two years ago when I heard the Florida-originated hard-alt rock quintet was back on the road. To answer the question in their biggest hit, it wasn’t over before. And on Sept. 9, Anberlin provided me and at least some others in a modest crowd a tasty sense of deja vu, returning to Emo’s seven years later and once again pounding through their best songs. Somewhat disappointingly, the set lasted barely an hour and ended bizarrely. But overall, seeing vocalist Stephen Christian and his group again was a forceful kick in the pants, and a reminder of how this band’s abilities have always been out of proportion with their fame.

Most 21st-century rock fans at least vaguely know “Feel Good Drag,” the Alternative Songs chart-topper off 2008’s album New Surrender and their one-song encore for this show. But even with that considerable chart success, “Feel Good Drag” is historically underrated, a crashing rock ‘n’ roll classic in search of actual, widespread acknowledgment of that status. And Anberlin has other razor-sharp rockers in the “Feel Good Drag” ballpark, which they showcased here with palpable energy: the ’90s-grunge-y quiet-to-loud dynamic shifts that characterize not only “Drag,” but other stage standouts “The Resistance,” “Dismantle. Repair.” and “Never Take Friendship Personal.”

To me, Anberlin’s has always been music that pairs best with the night and the warm summer dusk, their radio-friendly battering-ram distortion (currently courtesy of guitarists Joseph Milligan and Christian McAlhaney) balanced with the soaring, unusually clear bellow of Christian that has always set them apart. So at an aggressively dark venue such as Emo’s, with spotlights of varying colors streaking across them, they were — both in 2014 and now — a flawless fit. As a performer, Christian is a man on an imaginary pogo stick, bouncing in place with an unimpressive vertical leap, but an infectious exuberance. Balancing the set was a moving, take-a-breath midsection devoted to Anberlin’s best evocative balladry, including “The Unwinding Cable Car” and “Inevitable,” that displayed how well-rounded the band has always been. Christian is a writer and vocalist not only of considerably power, but of deep sincerity as well.

Predictably, as noted, Anberlin left “Feel Good Drag” on the table for the encore. Less predictably, after barely clearing an hour of stage time, that was all there was. Once the band vacated the stage for the second and the final time, what followed was nothing short of weird and confusing: The house lights remained dark, the stage ambiently lit, as someone else’s dissonant instrumental music played over the sound system. This lasted for the entirety of … whatever that song was, as the crowd of perhaps a few hundred people waited hopefully for a second encore that never came. Some took the … um, hint? … and began filing out after a couple of minutes, the lights still down, the music still playing.

Aside from that strange coda, seeing these underrated, underexposed rockers back on the stage again brought with it an undeniable satisfaction. At one point, Christian made an onstage reference to how Anberlin “broke up for five years.” With modern, mainstream rock needing all the credible firepower it can get right now, no need for Anberlin to be rushing to print more epitaph shirts.

Last thing to note on this show: This was my first experience with concert goers having to provide either proof of vaccination (it me, as they say) or a negative COVID test. Even with a small, perhaps limited crowd — hey, it seemingly beat the attendance at this weekend’s pathetic Justice for J6 rally — I was duly impressed by how easily the process went. Just show your ID and vax card, and that was it. Kudos to Emo’s staff for making the policy notable for how un-notable it was.