Foster the People at United Palace Theatre for CMJ 2014: Event Review

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Trekking way uptown for a festival hit by Ebola the night before is about as punk rock as it gets. But punk rock wasn’t the draw. In the name of indie pop, the brave and loyal flocked to United Palace Theatre on Friday night to see Foster the People’s show for the CMJ Music Marathon. But for the valiant fans who were handed their tickets by surgical glove fingers and still soldiered into a roomful of shared oxygen, I feel like there should have been a way bigger payoff.

Don’t get me wrong. The show was a massive, eye-catching production. Colorful lights pierced the darkness, psychedelic patterns spun on the stage, and giant plastic crystals flashed a neon spectacle behind the band. It felt like money and looked like the lovechild of Vegas and Disney, but it tried way too hard to be an experience. It was more of a lightshow than a concert, and the music was almost lost in the haze.

Foster the People’s setlist included “Psuedologica Fantastica,” “Miss You,” “Life on the Nickel,” “Helena Beat,” “Best Friend,” “Waste,” “Coming of Age,” “I Would Do Anything For You,” “Houdini,” “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon,” “Are You What You Want to Be?,” “Call it What You Want,” “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls),” and “The Truth.” Now be honest, how many times did you read through that list trying to find “Pumped Up Kicks?” We’ll get to that later.

In a venue as jaw-droppingly massive as United Palace Theatre, which welcomes guests with 3,293 cushy, movie theatre seats, the biggest challenge is distance. From most of those balconies, it already feels like you are looking at ants. Unfortunately, Foster the People’s strewn-about setup only added to the audience detachment. Lead singer Mark Foster maintained a rigid stance front and center, with body language that seemed to constantly call dibs on the spot. Pushed to the edges were bassist Jacob “Cubbie” Fink and drummer Mark Pontius, with the additional instrumentalists perched atop crystal-infused platforms. Even just appearing disjointed made it feel like they were each putting on separate performances, and by the time the music reached the nosebleeds, it sounded a little fuzzy.

The songs are extremely fun and catchy, an exuberance that could have easily made up for a good chunk of the shortcomings. But they were interspersed with rather intense dialogue from Foster, which kept dragging the mood into more serious territories. Inspirational declarations like “Love the truth, recognize the truth, and embrace it!” had my eyes rolling back to admire the Palace’s beautifully ornate ceiling. “This is the one time in history when all of these people in this room are going to be in the exact same place at the exact same time!” sounded more like a death sentence in the context of the Ebola scare, and mostly inspired me to whip out my hand sanitizer.

But the biggest shock came in the encore, as fans revved up for Foster the People’s biggest hit, “Pumped Up Kicks.” The catchy song has been widely associated with gun violence in schools, and Foster announced that a school shooting had taken place in Seattle that morning. I was overcome with respect for their discretion, but their sentiment quickly turned into a bitter rant against congressmen and the NRA. Nevertheless, they asked for a moment of silence in lieu of the song, and the pin-drop hush was astounding. The moment was again tarnished when someone began a beer-fueled chant of “U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!” C’est la vie.

Seeing as they have repeatedly denied accusations that “Pumped Up Kicks” glorifies violence or school shootings (Foster in 2011: “The song is not about condoning violence at all. It’s the complete opposite.”), its exclusion from their setlist is a little confusing. But whatever the song’s meaning, I am so impressed and so genuinely proud of Foster the People for acknowledging the tragedy and choosing not to play the song. What I am not impressed with was the way they turned the condolences into a tense political statement all in the same breath.

When the lights came on and the crew started breaking down the equipment, some spectators were still planted to their seats. Despite Foster’s speech, they shouted the song title at an empty stage. A security guard began making the rounds, saying, “I want to hear it too, but we gotta clear out.”

Was it a good move not to play it? At its core, yes. I think it was very mindful of them, and I really respect their decision. Did they handle it well? Not particularly.