We should probably know when we look over five songs into the Twilight Sad’s set at Lille Vega and see a middle-aged man with tears streaming from his eyes that the evening will not leave us unaffected. It’s easy to be distracted; the set of songs — primarily pulled from their latest album, the creatively punctuated IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME — are at at times a blindingly loud crush of tremolo-laden guitar.The sound is remarkably balanced considering this almighty noise; that the bass and keys can exist harmoniously in the mix and not as an ill tempered screech and thud feels miraculous. This is to say nothing of singer James Graham’s voice — his full-throttle bellow never waivers. It’s a wonder that his vocal cords aren’t in shreds.
But watching him is what makes the set take on a heavy energy. He’s pulling faces, twisting his body, spinning with abandon. It feels like watching someone work through something quite serious in real time. The rest of the band are stoic behind him, perhaps with the exception of drummer Sebastien Schultz, who looks like he might levitate straight upwards from behind his kit.
It’s hard to imagine how Graham has the physical energy to move like this, to contort his face and body with that strange, protracted violence. But then he’ll say a few words to the audience and it’s as if he’s broken character, suddenly polite and soft spoken.
The tenor of the set changes with their penultimate song, a cover of Frightened Rabbit’s “Keep Yourself Warm.” Suddenly, it’s clear what is and isn’t a performance coming from Graham: His voice is stretched thin as he reaches for notes, and body is totally still, and maybe it’s projection, but it looks like he swallows hard as he stands with his eyes closed on the outro of the song. All the while a man down at the front of the stage has been waving his phone, clearly trying to get Graham to read something on it. When Graham opens his eyes notices it, he looks briefly very annoyed as he takes the device and reads whatever is written out on it. We’ll never know, but Graham immediately drops down and embraces the man, who starts sobbing on his shoulder. A long moment passes like this, a barely audible “It’s going to be okay,” can be heard, and Graham gets up to explain the importance of remembering the band’s friend Scott Hutchison, of keeping his memory and music alive. You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it.
It takes Graham a minute to move into set closer “And She Would Darken the Memory,” but now his performance seems like a defense mechanism, as though he can twitch himself back into the right frame of mind. He shouts off mic a couple of times like he’s trying to pull himself together. Does it work for him? Does it work for any of us? It’s an emotionally draining performance just to watch. But it’s unforgettable.