The temperature hovered below freezing on Friday night in New York City, but inside Webster Hall, the assembled crowd of bundled-up fans and the layered, autumnal melodies of folk sextet Fanfarlo conspired to keep things downright cozy.
The evening capped off a six-week tour for the indie darlings, who released their debut full-length, Reservoir, in late September and have gained a steady following Stateside in the intervening months. David Bowie has praised the band's "delicious melancholia" and Grey's Anatomy featured their song "Ghosts."
Synthesizing the multi-instrumentalism and quirky musicality of Arcade Fire and the Balkan-tinged sonic doodlings of Beirut and Devotchka, the British band has successfully co-opted a very specific-- and up to now, distinctly North American corner of the indie rock scene. Which might account for why their songs sound instantly familiar -- and perfectly pleasing -- without being entirely revelatory.
As the venue darkened for Fanfarlo's set, a flurry of activity was perceptible at the edge of the stage, where it appeared that a man was being strapped into --could it be? a straightjacket and slowly strung up by his feet from the stage lights.
As the lights came up and the band clapped out an a cappella lead-in to their single "These Walls Are Coming Down," it became apparent that the man in question was escape artist Michael Lee, who wriggled maniacally out of his restraints as the band launched exuberantly into the trumpet-led ditty.
It was the dramatic highlight of an otherwise rather staid, albeit pitch-perfect, performance. Between the Harry Houdini-esque pantomime of the opening piece, the stage set painted to resemble the red-and-white interior of a circus tent, and the steampunk carnival howler get-ups of singer Simon Balthazar and bassist Justin Finch, the proceedings were willfully infused with antique, theatrical sensibility.
But at times the staginess felt forced, or worse, nonsensical, as when the band passed out long red tubes for the audience to twirl helicopter-style over their heads during "Ghosts," arguably the best song on Reservoir and one whose quiet, violin-anchored build needed no special adornments or gimmicks.
These intermittent stunts only served to distract from the precise compositions and impressive, refined musicianship at work on stage. In fact, some of the quieter moments, like the soft, folky new song "Atlas" (for which the band's captivating violinist/mandolin player Cathy Lucas sang harmony with Balthazar) showed the authentic talent at the group's core.
A handful of new songs like "Noose," a surprisingly poppy keyboard ballad owing more to Burt Bacharach than Gogol Bordello, were peppered throughout the 12-song set, which closed out with the maritime stomp of the percussive, urgent "Luna."
For the encore, opening band Freelance Whales joined Fanfarlo onstage for a buoyant (and seasonally appropriate) cover of Low's "Just Like Christmas." It was, perhaps, a subtle ode to Balthazar's native Sweden (the opening lyrics intone "On our way from Stockholm/It started to snow"), and a glorious, messy, sparkling and jovial end to the night -- and the tour.