May 25, 2004

Lerche conducts Two Way Monologue with crowd

You've probably heard about Sondre Lerche recently. 2002's brilliant Faces Down put the Norwegian boy wonder on the map, and this year's Two Way Monologue has done far better than anyone expected, earning recommendations from the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin. However, someone should have expected it. Lerche is basically the indie singer/songwriter version of Frank Sinatra, and things turned out pretty good for that guy. He has that "I-meant-to-be-talking-but-I-ended-up-singing" croon that is both comforting and musical. Additionally, he is such a talented songwriter that one almost doesn't notice it. The songs seem to float by—until you realize you're singing them everywhere you go. Lerche was sitting in the catbird seat with reams of new material, a new band, and newfound confidence as he played to a sold-out crowd at Martyr's.

Lerche arrived on stage, cockily enough, to his own song "Love You," waving his hand theatrically to cut crowd noise when he was ready to perform. Looking very artistic in his blazer and jeans, he launched into "It's Our Job" from Two Way Monologue. In the time since last year's performance at Schuba's, Lerche has apparently mastered his pre-show jitters. In the former show, he fouled up guitar lines and sang off key until he eventually found his groove. At Martyr's, he seemed completely at home with his slinky guitar work and delicate croon. After playing the first song solo, Lerche introduced his new band, the Faces Down (just about the Norwegianest guys I've ever seen). For the rest of the show, Lerche used the band to brilliant effect, featuring only the instruments he needed at any given time, and at other times playing solo or simply with pedal steel.

Lerche proved a master of reinterpretation, breathing new life into songs from Faces Down while expanding the arrangements of songs from Two Way Monologue. The jazziness of Lerche's work was emphasized with several songs (notably "It's Too Late" and "Days That are Over"), giving a decidedly downbeat, finger-snapping feel to the show. Lerche also revealed a new country influence, adding spare pedal steel and dreary tremoloed guitar work to several songs. Given this treatment, "Suffused With Love" was changed from a head-bopper with a horror soundtrack backdrop to a roadhouse tearjerker.

In stark contrast to these subdued readings, Lerche also performed several amped-up songs. The crowd favorite "Dead Passengers" had the album version's theremin solo replaced by a decidedly Stevie Ray Vaughn-esque guitar solo, turning the already great song into quite a barnburner. "No One's Gonna Come" featured an extended rockabilly jam that brought thunderous applause from the crowd. Lerche also introduced a song that was left off Two Way Monologue—"Johnny Johnny Ooh Ooh"—saying "It just didn't feel right. You see, I'm an artist and everything must feel right," as he patted his heart in jest. However, it is unfortunate that it didn't feel right, as it was terrific, in addition to being the hardest-rocking thing Lerche has done.

Lerche performed an extended encore, with crowd favorites like "Sleep on Needles," which featured an emphasized drum line, and "Modern Nature," which proved to be a sing-along. The latter song, which is actually a duet, was performed live for the first time ever at Schuba's last winter. Apparently, Lerche had never considered performing the song live, but so many people requested it that he decided to do the female parts as well. Before playing it at Martyr's, Lerche mentioned that the incident at Schuba's was "one of the most beautiful moments for me as a performer." Perhaps the only misstep in the entire show was the final song, "Maybe You're Gone." The version of the song on Two Way Monologue is quite good, but the live version droned on for (no shit) about 10 minutes, a huge portion of which was only tremolo guitar. In fact, Lerche actually managed to put a sizeable portion of the audience to sleep, so the final applause was somewhat muted.

Despite this single flaw, the concert as a whole proved excellent. Lerche, above all else, has an amazing rapport with his audience. He seems truly humble and grateful to be playing, bowing after every song and always saying thank you. In fact, Lerche and his band seem like the happiest guys I've ever seen on a stage. After the show, Lerche went directly—no backstage break—to the merchandise table to talk with fans and sign autographs. Lerche might be on of the most promising songwriters to come along in a few years, but it is his unwillingness to set himself above his audience that will sustain him.