The few early birds at Store Vega are greeted with five Belgians singing in eerie harmony over a sparse rhythm section. Balthazar are a puzzling band. A naysayer would call them derivative, unoriginal, erratic. They seem to pinch from everyone and everywhere: the odd poppy bassline, occasional spaghetti western guitars, Bob Dylan-drenched lead vocals, chimes, a violin, big group choruses, tremolo picked guitars. On paper it sounds like awful cliché. But no matter how highly you choose to prize originality, Balthazar have an undeniable if elusive idiosyncrasy, and more importantly, a fantastic live sound. Songs that on record seem rather unremarkable, like “Sinking Ship”, completely transform on stage, in this case into a thundering, Bruce Springsteen chorus. Another name, another influence, I know, but certainly not a criticism. They are constantly surprising, veering in unexpected directions, always simple, but never facile or boring. Even with five people on stage, and countless musical influences, they are able to leave enough space in their sound for every instrument to be distinct and vital. They are, in this sense, quite the opposite of Editors, who will spend the next hour and a half filling up every space they possibly can.
Not that the audience is exactly filling the place. The balcony section has been closed off due to low ticket sales, and the back of the room is less than packed. Perhaps the casual concert-goers were already satisfied with Editors’ performance only a few months ago in Tivoli. What the crowd lacks in numbers it makes up for in enthusiasm, as the cute-couple contingent at the front and the back-rows of post-punk veterans/old farts hail the headline act’s opener, “Sugar”. The ice machines and backlighting give the place a churchy feel, and I feel an infidel among the faithful. People around me are beaming, singing along, awkwardly trying to dance, fist-pumping, or being arseholes with their camera phones. Admittedly the band have a swagger I would never have expected from them, with Tom, the singer, making witchy hand gestures and bassist Russ constantly climbing onto the drum podium. And they do manage to make each song sound exactly like the album recordings. There is just something I’m just not getting.
It’s strange. After all, I was the perfect age when The Back Room first brought Editors to international fame. I used to mouth the words. These songs should make me nostalgic. This is the first gig of their new tour, and after having toured The Weight of Your Love extensively, this is a chance for the band to dip into their four albums at will. Indeed I get a twitch at the beginning of “Munich”, a slight tingle at “Bullets”, and I have the impression, probably wholly incorrect, that the rest of the audience reacts most strongly to the songs from the debut album. But I am constantly held back, no stage theatrics or sing-alongs carry me into the same state as the people around me.
Halfway through the concert I move back to the old farts’ section, losing in sound quality, but making up for it with the sight of overweight, 60-year old men in New Model Army t-shirts making strange arm gestures at the blatant Echo and the Bunnymen ripoff opening riff to “A Ton of Love”. My god, they must have been my age when Ocean Rain was first released.
Why is it that I can defend Balthazar while being completely baffled by people’s love of Editors? It has nothing to do with considerations of originality, or even stealing sounds, but rather that the sounds Editors chose turned out to the ones I find least interesting about those post-punk bands we enjoy. There is no surprise, no subversion. Editors are a band guided by emotion, but evidently not one I happen to share. But it was exactly what a couple of hundred people in Vega wanted, so who can fault them that?