The lone bit of set dressing adorning Explosions in the Sky's stage at Radio City Music Hall was a small Texas flag, maybe two feet long, draped over a bass cabinet. The rest of the theatrics came strictly from the amps themselves.
The Austin-based quartet (guitarists Mark Smith, Michael James, and Munaf Rayani, drummer Chris Hrasky, no vocalist whatsoever, and augmented on most songs by a touring bassist/keyboardist) played what might have been the biggest show of their career at a posh, legendary theater perfectly suited to their cinematic soundscapes. But while there's something that seems imposing about seeing an instrumental band in full bloom, Explosions' show is devoid of nearly all indulgent trappings -- an hour's worth of long, wordless songs, and still no real solos.
That, probably, is what keeps Explosions in the Sky from bearing jam-band or jazzbo stigma -- they're wonky, but not wanky. Their songs have fairly traditional structure and heavily favor quiet-LOUD-quiet dynamics, like the Pixies on Robitussin; they're just missing the parts where someone sings over them. The three guitars have similar clean, clear tones so the lines intermingle, and no one plays "lead" per se. The songs don't greatly vary in this respect from one to another, yet, amazingly, they still don't feel redundant.
It's perhaps for this reason that the set wasn't longer than an hour, no encore, bookended by "Postcard From 1952" and the relatively compact, double-time "Trembling Hands," both from their new album Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. There can be too much of a good thing, as many people who have endured a four-hour Phish show sober can attest.
James stands front and center, but that's where any similarities to a frontman end. Rayani is a bit more of a magnetic presence, rocking from side to side on his heels, guitar slung low, or skulking towards Hrasky's kit to aid with some drum-bashing, and he's the one with the mic stand so he can thank everyone for coming after the final notes of "Trembling Hands" stopped ringing.
It's nothing short of remarkable that a band of this type can reach this level of popularity and ubiquity, but not because the music is somehow difficult -- even the eight-minute squalls you've never heard before seem comfortingly familiar, which is pretty much the definition of pop music. And their association with Friday Night Lights, the popular TV series and film for which they recorded incidental music, can't be the whole explanation. Yes, there was an extra rumble of applause during the opening notes of the FNL soundtrack entry "Your Hand In Mine," but this band, and their live show, isn't about any particular song. It's about all of the songs, blended together into a (good-)mood piece, or maybe the closest most of us want to get to classical music, one long, dramatically-lit montage sequence of people nodding agreeably.
Postcard from 1952
Birth and Death of the Day
Yasmin the Light
Last Known Surroundings
The Only Moment We Were Alone
Catastrophe and the Cure
Let Me Back In
Your Hand in Mine