There are a few things for which I would gladly endure eight hours surrounded by thousands of effervescent teenagers, and this year’s Deck the Hall Ball was definitely one of those things. Uniting like the nations they hail from, this year’s batch of artists represented a wide variety of countries. Alt-J, Arctic Monkeys, and Foals from England, Chvrches from Scotland, Phoenix from France, and Lorde all the way from New Zealand. But the End, the radio station who organized the show, didn’t completely leave out our own country – Vampire Weekend and Seattle’s own the Head and the Heart brought it back home.
I’ve been to several of these radio shows. My first was back in 2004 when Modest Mouse, the Killers, and Franz Ferdinand were just a few artists on the bill. Since then I’ve been four more times, and I can honestly say that this might be the best lineup I’ve ever seen. All of the bands filled the stage and the stadium and there really weren’t any low points of the evening.
Unlike last year where the bill seemed disjointed, this year’s lineup was cohesive and the day flowed perfectly. At no point did I think, “I’m going to skip this band to go get food.” Seriously, I didn’t eat the whole day.
Starting the day to a largely empty stadium at 3 p.m., Chvrches put together just the right amount of energy with an adorable, and light show. At this point, most of the audience was just teenagers because no grown-up with a real job can go to a show starting at 3 in the afternoon. The Scottish trio was probably the most unknown band on the lineup, and after front woman Lauren Mayberry did fuss with her earpiece throughout the whole first song, they got comfortable on the large stage and killed it. They made me forgot how disappointed I was that Tame Impala cancelled on us (Chvrches took their slot).
Foals were up next, and this was one of that bands that I’d been waiting to see since probably 2008 when their first record Antidotes was released. They started with “My Number,” the big hit that the End has been spinning the hell out of lately. That got the crowd going, and after that, I think much of the crowd wasn’t expecting how hard and loud Foals’ music got. “My Number” may be a catchy dance rock tune, but this band has got one of hell of a backbone in Yannis Philippakis, and “Inhaler” was the best example of that. I’ve always been a fan of English rock bands, and it’s nice to see Seattle embracing what I’ve loved for so long.
This was the point when the stadium started to fill up, naturally because Lorde was up next on the lineup. I tried to avoid giving into the hype of this girl for a very long time, but finally listened to the whole record last month and damn, Lorde is worth that hype, let me tell you. And not just on record, but live as well. This 17-year-old Kiwi with the mane of a lion has the weirdest presence on stage, but it was certainly a presence that captured the entire audience. I can’t tell you how many times she swung her hair around, and twitched on stage while she sang. It was all very bizarre, and engrossing. We also got the first singalong of the day with the massively popular (and possibly overplayed) “Royals.” What were you doing when you were 17? Certainly not that.
Once Lorde stepped off stage, a mass exodus left the pit on the floor to do who knows what, but I almost wanted to yell at them, “ARCTIC MONKEYS ARE NEXT, YOU STAY THERE AND ENJOY IT.” I’m really passionate about Arctic Monkeys, needless to say. Gregr from the End said it best after their performance was over, “So are you all pregnant now?” Alex Turner has got the most sexual presence on stage now that it seemed like he was trying to get us all pregnant with those hips of his. He was straight up channeling Danny Zuko from Grease with his stealthy comb work. But all sexiness aside, Arctic Monkeys are one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Turner has so much charisma and guitar chops all at one time that you have to just sit there in awe. So many bands have the lead singer playing rhythm guitar because it’s “easier” than lead guitar, but not the Monkeys. It’s evident that they’ve been together for 10 years, because their performance was effortless. I wish their set had gone on longer. So much longer.
But it’s not like the show was over *over exaggerated laughter*. No, it was about half over. Alt-J was next, and instantly all the triangle hand symbols flew up into the air. Unlike Arctic Monkeys, Alt-J only has one album to play from, so their set list was a bit predictable because of it, but just as enjoyable. We also got the second singalong of the night with “Matilda,” the weirdly catchy song off An Awesome Wave. Front man Joe Newman has one of the most one-of-a-kind voices in rock music today, and while you’d expect it to get grating after awhile, his voice translates really well in a live setting. Alt-J also had the most epic lighting setup of the night that matched their unique blend of keyboards, minimal bass, and even castanets. The crowd ate it up, and I was there along with them with a knife and fork until the last bite.
Hometown darlings the Head and the Heart were next on the lineup, and at first I was worried for them. After all the loud weird synthy indie rock, their simple brand of folk music could seem “boring,” and the first few songs, all off Let’s Be Still didn’t seem to resonate with the crowd, much to my dismay. But the raucous teenagers finally warmed up to them after they played “Lost In My Mind,” the song that made its way to the End last year and everyone joined in song. I will admit, I miss seeing the Head and the Heart at small venues, but seeing the entire KeyArena sing along to a local band that’s so close to my heart made me well up just a little bit. I didn’t cry. I didn’t. At least not until Charity Rose Thielen sang her butt off during their closing song “Rivers and Roads.” In fact, Josiah Johnson expressed exactly what I was thinking when he thanked the End for sticking with them for so long, calling the radio station “one of a few stations that reaches such a wide audience that still supports local artists.” Well, when you’ve got a city like Seattle where local bands are more omnipresent than coffee shops, you can’t help but recognize the talent.
And to add to the sweetness of their set, Johnson announced that they’re playing a show at the Paramount in February!
Finally hitting the home stretch, the crowd was then taken to France. Phoenix actually played at Deck the Hall Ball in 2009. It was the first time I photographed their show, so this was a nostalgic treat for me. As we all sat there, band on stage, lights were down, there was a loud humming, and I was assuming it was intro music for the first song. But after we sat there for a couple minutes, Thomas Mars said into the mic, “well this isn’t working, so we’re going to improvise.” And he improvised like the pro he is, walking out on to the barrier by the crowd, only joined by Christian Mazzalai on guitar and did a stripped down version of “Sick For the Big Sun” while the sound guys fixed whatever wasn’t working. What started out as a hiccup ended up being a really precious and intimate moment with the crowd, which is why Phoenix is so great at what they do. The rest of their set did not slow down or disappoint at all after that special first song, going all the way back into their catalog, as well as playing several songs off Bankrupt!. It was a treat for all the new fans as well as the old.
It was now 9:30, and the floor was as crowded as it would get, and the young people were starting to get restless. Most of them were there to see Vampire Weekend, from what I heard around me, so once the boys got on stage, everyone stood up and basically didn’t stop dancing. Vampire Weekend also played at that 2009 Deck the Hall Ball I mentioned earlier, so again I was feeling super nostalgic. And it didn’t hurt that Rolling Stone named “Modern Vampires Of The City” the best of 2013 that day, so the mood was generally awesome all around. I’m not entirely sure why Ezra Koenig was wearing pajamas on stage, but it really doesn’t matter. They closed out the night in the most perfect way, with overwhelming joy, with songs from their debut, from Contra, and from the aforementioned Modern Vampires.
It’s weird to think that when Vampire Weekend first came onto the scene, they were revered, as well as skepticized as a “one hit wonder.” They’ve since proven all the haters wrong and stayed fresh and fun and good. I mean, that’s really all that matters in the long run, right? You can have all the gimmicks and twee quirkiness you want, but if you’re not good, you’ve got nothing. That’s what Vampire Weekend, and all the rest of the bands proved that night at the KeyArena. Some have got the quirks, but they’ve got all the goods.