Singer/guitarist Brian Sella and drummer Mat Uychich, known to an ever-growing army of ardent fans as The Front Bottoms, brought their third annual Champagne Jam to their new hometown of Asbury Park, Dec. 16.
Asbury Park — or at least the 2,000 or so fans who jammed Asbury’s Convention Hall — approved.
In fact, the deafening screams from the mostly young and predominantly female crowd that greeted The Front Bottoms when they took the stage rivaled the pandemonium afforded to teen idols like One Direction, with fans united into a seething, pointing, crowd-surfing, moshing mass during the entirety of the band’s 23-song, 90-minute set. Sella was in great voice, but he could have sat out the whole shebang and the crowd would have sung all the lyrics for him, including tracks from the band’s new Going Grey, their sixth full-length overall and second for Warner Bros. imprint Fueled by Ramen Records.
The Front Bottoms have been one of the Garden State’s happiest success stories in recent years, from their start a decade ago grinding it out in suburban all-ages spaces through years of touring and building an audience. A lot of young bands establish a base and live off it for years, but the Front Bottoms keep winning over new and mostly teenaged fans with every tour and album; while Sella and Uychich are both pushing 30, at least half if not more of the audience at their Champagne Jam proved ironically too young to drink. Even on Going Grey, Sella’s still writing about high-school crushes, the awkward adolescent fear of growing up, and that uniquely teenaged nostalgia for simpler, less angst-ridden times.
The band dug deep into its catalog for this elongated set, including rare cuts like “Wolfman” (the B-side of their split 7-inch with Jersey rapper GDP), an untitled bonus track found only on the vinyl version of Going Grey and, as a real surprise, “Today Is Not Real,” a pre-FB’s Sella composition whose demo has only been shared by a small circle of collectors.
While the Front Bottom have and will always be Sella and Uychich, the duo have always augmented their drums and acoustic guitar sound with other instruments, and their current four-piece band does a beautiful job of recreating the catchy filigree in Front Bottoms songs with synthesizers, violin, trumpet, bass and electric guitar.
At this point, old favorites like “The Beers” and “Au Revoir” almost play themselves, but the tracks from Going Grey sounded much better live than on the record, freed of ostentatious arrangements and radio-friendly overproduction. Sella and Uychich’s relocation to Asbury Park inspired much of the album, and those songs, like “Ocean” and “Vacation Town,” took on an added intimacy being sung on the Jersey shore.
Going Grey’s opening track, “You Used to Say (Holy Fuck),” has become the band’s opener of choice on the road, and other tracks like “Peace Sign” and “Grand Finale” hit home much harder live. The Front Bottoms are about nothing if not sincerity, and it’s hard to be sincere when your label is making you add bloated Weezer-esque intros and outros to what are basically heartfelt folk-punk ditties.
The Champagne Jam began two years ago at Manhattan’s Webster Hall (currently closed for renovations), with the idea of the Front Bottoms celebrating the holidays by paying back some of the bands who’d helped them along the way or showcasing young talent they’d met on tour.
Great idea, but this year’s 10-band opening roster fell far short of last year’s lineup, which had included the theatrical and bombastic Brick + Mortar, and female-fronted bands Screaming Females, dollys and Diet Cig. With their large female following, the Front Bottoms might have thought about choosing a more diverse collection of openers for this year’s show, which consisted almost entirely of cookie-cutter all-male guitar bands. (For the record, Weakened Friends, who went on early, did include two female members.)
The opening bands played on two stages, one inside Convention Hall and a second, smaller one in the arcade, under a towering and beautifully decorated Christmas tree. That kept the evening moving briskly, if not rewardingly.
Some of the openers, like White Reaper and The Big Easy, came highly hyped but disappointed, playing the sort of generic emo rock that Jersey bands today like to call “pop punk.” (For the record, it is neither.) The Districts featured a good-looking male singer whose penchant for melodramatically over-singing every note makes him a natural for either “American Idol” or the opera, while Slaughter Beach, Dog (besides the annoyingly punctuated name) turned out to be a lifeless clone of the Front Bottom’s bouncy pop sound, with a frontman who stood there like a stick and a set of songs that all sounded the same.
Thirteen-year veterans of the folk-punk circuit, Phoenix’s AJJ (formerly Andrew Jackson Jihad) finally brought some excitement to the evening, although Convention Hall’s abominable acoustics made the band’s acerbic and often political lyrics (following in the tradition of weird folkies like the Holy Modal Rollers and the Fugs) indecipherable.
I have no idea how Delicate Steve wound up at the top of the opening bill; his wanky instrumental guitar rock was certainly not the desperately needed dose of pep the crowd needed after so many low-energy openers.
Fortunately, the disappointing appetizers didn’t spoil anyone’s appetite for the main course. The Front Bottoms proved without a doubt that they reign as the most exciting band in New Jersey and their trajectory still seems pointed straight up. In November, they sold out the 3000-capacity Terminal 5 in Manhattan and the 2,500-capacity Starland Ballroom in Sayreville. There’s no telling what they can accomplish in 2018. I just hope they remember that all those girls in their audience need role models to emulate as much if not more than a band they can relate to.
Here is the show’s setlist, and, under that, a photo gallery and videos.
“You Used to Say (Holy Fuck)”
“Be Nice to Me”
“The Plan (Fuck Jobs)”
Bonus Track 1 (from Going Grey vinyl)
“Today Is Not Real”
“Don’t Fill Up on Chips”
“Twelve Feet Deep” (Sella acoustic)
“Everyone but You”
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