Live: Fiery Furnaces Play It Relatively Straight At Rockwood Music Hall

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The Fiery Furnaces
Rockwood Music Hall
Wednesday, May 4

Better than: Steve & Eydie redux.

All the blind alleys the Fiery Furnaces' songs take tend to foreshorten the idea of the group ever putting on a straightforward show. That's before we even get into Matt and Eleanor Friedberger's habit of rearranging already tricky songs into nonstop medleys for stage use, or their refusal to sound exactly the same from tour to tour or album to album. Yet last night at the Rockwood, normally a more folk-oriented venue, they set out to prove their material could hold up under the most old-school of entertainment conditions. Here, songs as straightforward as "Here Comes the Summer" (with its ringing refrain: "Remember!"; from 2005's EP) and as twisty as the nine-minute, several-discrete-parts "Blueberry Boat" (2004) were rendered in full by Matt on piano and Eleanor standing with a microphone. Ladies and gentlemen, the Fiery Furnaces finally have gone lounge.

Well, hardly: what could Esquivel or the Coctails have done with a song like "The Philadelphia Grand Jury" (from 2007's Widow City), whose refrain goes, "More crooked sons of bitches you can't ever have come across"? Nevertheless, in the Furnaces' full-electric-band incarnation, Eleanor rattles off those lyrics from memory. Here, both she and Matt had lyric sheets: many of the songs hadn't been performed in their entirety before. On one, "Pricked in the Heart" (also from Widow City), Eleanor kept missing the opening lines, which Matt hammered out before she assumed her footing. Really--who could be confused by the proper rhythm of this: "Listen, these are not drunken as you suppose/It might not be 3 o'clock in the morning like it seems/The little children will be prescient/And your young men will see shows/And your old men will dream dreams"? Pshaw, you know?

The set concentrated largely on what Furnaces fans think longingly of as "normal" songs, meaning that somewhere a person who listens to the radio might like them, as opposed to the kind of folks (they were there, of course) who'd call out for "Chris Michaels" near the set's end. (They got "Black Hearted Boy" instead.) The Friedbergers performed some of their straightest material weirdly--"Single Again" took on an almost Gothic tinge thanks to Matt's moody chords. (Accidentally, he almost skipped it. "What happened to the song before that?" Eleanor teased him. "You get to show off your piano playing.") And vice versa: during "Evergreen" Matt accompanied Eleanor by playing the tune of Bob Seger's "Still the Same." It's hard to think of a phrase that describes the Furnaces less.

Critical bias: I've interviewed both Eleanor (at a bistro in Williamsburg) and Matt (twice over the phone); each experience was quite pleasant.

Overheard: Woman at bar after first song, re: Eleanor: "Awww--she's cute."

Random notebook dump: Following "The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry": "I can't wait for their kids' album."

Setlist:

"Smelling Cigarettes"
"The Garfield El"
"Here Comes the Summer"
"Pricked in the Heart"
"The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry"
"Even in the Rain"
"Blueberry Boat"
"The Philadelphia Grand Jury"
"1971"
"Single Again"
"Cousin Chris"
"Widow City"
"Nevers"
"Evergreen"
"Wolf Notes"
"Keep Me in the Dark"
"Uncle Charlie"
"Black Hearted Boy"
"Whistle Rhapsody"

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