Shipwrecked Rock Band Communes With The Natives

Reviewer: Sarah Koliboski

Venue: Temple Theatre

Did Wes Andersen sign off on this?

The glittering digital marquee that adorns the front of Saginaw’s Temple Theatre alternated between brightly announcing the details of Sunday evening’s entertainment and flashing an image of the band that was soon to take the stage.

These dudes looked like they were on their way to a costume contest that they intended to win... from the red stocking hats and nearly identical-but-not-quite blue garments, right down to the matching Adidas, the band members of Switchfoot were sporting a look that was clearly influenced by the classic Andersen film “Life Aquatic”  — heavily influenced.

Recently celebrating 20 years together as a band, Switchfoot is still in the first week of an Andersen-esque, nautically-themed national tour. The San Diego Christian rockers found themselves washed up on Saginaw’s friendly shores, staring off into the distance and doing their best “Team Zissou” impersonation, bringing their “Fantastic Traveling Music Show” to the Temple Theater this past Sunday, Oct. 6.

The ornate beauty of the historic building only added shine to what was already a highly polished production.

As attendees found their way to their cushioned seats, they were greeted by a stage made to mimic a shipwreck. The props were were intentionally kitschy and naive, but were clever and well-executed. A convincing fire flickered and danced on stage, and what looked to be the washed-up, broken bits of the band’s fantasy ship disguised keyboards and percussion instruments.

A snapped mast sat center stage, its dejected sail serving as a projection screen. Glowing with still photos of the band members, it also ran various short clips, most of which were in black-and-white and felt like WWII-era newsreels. A phone number beckoning you to text it appeared on screen, promising free live recordings.

This cinematic prelude ended with a mini-infomercial for an organization called Food For The Hungry. It depicted the band members smiling in slow-motion in some nameless shanty town, kicking soccer balls and brandishing guitars amid throngs of skinny, grateful-looking (and presumably deserving) brown children.

Before they even played a note, Switchfoot was asking audience members to open their hearts and, more importantly, their wallets.

The concert was unique in that it was divided into two distinct acts, complete with an intermission that allowed for a set change.

“Act One: Shipwrecked” was an acoustic set woven with stage banter, storytelling and audience participation. The “Life Aquatic,” ahem, nautical theme continued as a mini-movie introducing the band and its crew appeared on the sail/projection screen.

Guitarist Drew Shirley read a humorous entry about being shipwrecked in Saginaw from his fictional journal. Lead vocalist and guitarist Jon Foreman played ukulele for the set, charmingly bemoaning his “lack of skill.” All band members wore some version of the “Zissou” costume.

A mass of red stocking caps (freshly purchased at $20 a piece from the merch table in the lobby) peppered the crowd, fans eagerly swaying and singing the band’s lyrics back to them. The genuine connection between the band and its fans was immediately apparent.

A highlight of the set was an achingly beautiful cover of U-2’s “With Or Without You.” At one point, two oversized plastic bottles containing song requests on slips of paper from the audience were passed onto the stage. The “message in a bottle” moment fit neatly into the overall aesthetic, and the band closed by reading  several of the requests aloud and then playing the named songs.

After a 20-minute intermission,  “Act Two: To The Skies” began inauspiciously, with only the two brothers Foreman on stage in front of a black curtain. The curtain then lifted to reveal the whole band in full rock mode, drum riser and swiveling spot lights and all, and thus began an energetic career-spanning electric set.

They made sure to include stand-by hits like “Meant to Live” and “Dare You to Move” along with newer fare from their current release,  “Native Tongue.” The band delivered every song with gusto, guitar-hero moves a-plenty on display.

During the first act, bassist Tim Foreman remarked that they “wanted this tour to feel like a thank you card to the fans,”  and “The Fantastic Traveling Music Show” definitely accomplished that.

The venue was beautiful, the sound was good and the effects tasteful; the show featured a well developed (if borrowed) theme with a recognizable, nostalgic aesthetic and delivered a finely crafted experience.

If Switchfoot can be faulted for airing a well-intentioned but slightly cringe-worthy plea to “feed the children” at the beginning of their show, they can easily be forgiven. They gave a warm, skilled performance, and managed to pull-off a near miracle: they transformed what could have been mere entertainment into communion.

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