Written by Courtney Lavender
"Thanks for coming back," my friend Amy said to singer Gary Lightbody outside Los Angeles' Fonda Theatre last week. "We never weren't coming back," he assured us. It needed to be said anyhow. Gary has been open about the reasons the new Snow Patrol album, Wildness (due May 25th), has taken five years. As an artist with a wide-reaching platform, his frankness regarding his experience with depression will hopefully aid in its destigmatization, and further the discussion around mental health and addiction issues.
During the first song of the April 25th show (the third on their short promo tour), Lightbody kneeled and reached out to a photographer, providing the perfect shot, and received no reaction. "Smile, man!" he prompted good-naturedly between lyrics. "You're really close to me – smile!" Within 60 seconds of taking the stage, he'd both managed to command everyone's attention, and dish out a reminder to be present within the celebratory energy of the room.
I first saw Snow Patrol open for U2 in Ireland in 2005. I was an instant convert; I'd never seen so much joy bursting from one human, such a glowing smile, such a connection to the earth, the sky, the people. Despite the singer's ongoing struggles, and some vocal issues and technical false starts on the night, he is, with remarkable resilience, still smiling. “It’s one of the most incredible feelings, and I forgot," he said of being on stage. "Now I fucking remember.”
The same energy sparked from every corner of the stage – guitarist Nathan Connolly dancing up a storm, bassist Paul "Pablo" Wilson singing every word, keyboardist Johnny McDaid’s eyes twinkling.
Hearing the old songs live again was a blast. In the context of the evening, "Take Back the City" became a love song to LA, Lightbody's second home, with the honourary Angeleno opening his arms as if to embrace us. "Crack the Shutters" was joyful and reverent as ever; "Make This Go On Forever" a captivating, desperate plea. Minnie Driver even showed up to duet on "Set Fire to the Third Bar."
The group, supported by the force that is Jonny Quinn on drums, is adept at mixing straight-forward rock with more intimate moments, sometimes within the space of seconds. Halting the steady thump of "Shut Your Eyes" to silence, Gary turned the chorus over to the crowd, conducting us to build from a “sexy” whisper to a bellow.
Outshining the hits, the new tunes were the real stars of the night. They are solid and catchy as ever, but lyrically cut deeper, wider. Fallen Empires, the previous Snow Patrol album, explored themes beyond typical relationship fodder, such as home, family, and childhood, and the Wildness songs previewed at the Fonda reveal an even broader scope of universality. I can’t help but think of the poem “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
The first single, "Don't Give In," with its Don't you dare quit so easy chorus, acts as a buoy in a bleak world. Don't say you want it forever*, Gary sings of the darkness. Anyone who's been in the abyss knows its appeal. Connolly adds a particularly blistering riff that alone might convince anyone in doubt that life is worth living.
[*When the album was released, I realised this lyric was actually Don’t say you won’t live forever, which is equally devastating.]
"Empress," inspired by producer Jacknife Lee’s kids, seemed in part a tribute to the communal nature of live music, and also contained the singular, glorious truth that We’re all just human in the end. For an additional shot of pure perspective, you get the clincher, This is so damn simple, a reminder to reevaluate any useless preoccupation.
The mark of a great singer is measured less by vocal quality, and more by believability. Do you believe what you are singing? Do others believe you when you sing it? Though he may have tripped up technically at points, I never once doubted what Gary was communicating, nor did anyone in the rapt audience. "Heal Me" was dedicated to someone who saved his life. I've been standing in the fire for way too long, he sang, and I could feel the flames.
"Life on Earth" might be one of the best tunes the band has written. Murky, moody verses are countered with a simplistic, shouty chorus that cuts to the bone – It doesn’t need to be so fucking hard / It doesn't need to be the end of you or me / This is life on earth / It’s just life on earth. BE HERE NOW, the song insists, before three layers of harmony shoot you soaring into space.
Of course, in true Snow Patrol fashion, the vibe wasn't a heavy one, and the band/audience rapport elicited some hilarious banter. Gary spied a sign declaring I LOVE YOU with his name literally in lights. “Now I feel shy.” Another: Popping my Snow Patrol cherry tonight. “I’m not reading any more signs.” Later he admitted that the encore break was long because he had to have a pee and the bathroom was far away.
Perhaps one of the best things about this band is that their casual stage presence eliminates the barrier between performer and crowd, making you forget they’ve had a mega hit. It’s just you and them sharing a theatre with a few strangers, singing together, and laughing about being alive.
After the "long" break, Lightbody and McDaid returned alone for an absolute show-stopper called "What if This is All the Love You Ever Get." Bathed in magenta, motionless but for his hands, Gary delivered the most seemingly hopeless statement with delicately defiant hope. What if it hurts like hell? Then it’ll hurt like hell. It was a flawless performance – passionate and plaintive, full of empathy, acceptance and gratitude. Why do we search unsatisfied, when what we need is all around us? I’m in the ruins too / I know the wreckage so well / Come on over, come on over here / What if this is all the love you'll ever get?
Their usual set-closer, "Just Say Yes," ended the night on a jubilant note. We could dance. Thanks for coming back.
Open Your Eyes
Take Back the City
Called Out in the Dark
Don't Give In
Crack the Shutters
Set the Fire to the Third Bar
Life on Earth
Make This Go on Forever
Shut Your Eyes
You're All I Have
What if This is All the Love You Ever Get
Just Say Yes