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Preaching to the Converted: Chvrches Kick Off Tour in Oakland

Chvrches at Fox Theater, Oakland, California, November 17, 2013 / Photo by Wilson Lee

Even by indie rock’s current standards of success, when a single song posted to a single blog can earn you a record deal, high-profile opening slots, and possibly even a magazine cover or two, Chvrches’ ascendance this year is, in a word, ridonkulous.

This is a band that hadn’t released a single song 18 months ago, a band whose debut full-length, The Bones of What You Believe, was just two months old as they took the stage of the sold-out Fox Theatre in Oakland, a cavernous 2,800 capacity auditorium festooned with terra cotta trimmings and regal Middle Eastern statuary. Here were three wee Scots on a very big stage, looking to prove they belonged there as they kicked off their final tour of this whirlwind year. Appropriately, lead singer Lauren Mayberry marked the occasion by ingesting some pharmaceuticals — Sudafed, to be exact.

“On the plane I caught a lurgy,” she announced. “Do you have that expression here?”

Uhhh. Right, the band is Glaswegian. A lurgy’s apparently like a cold. Having arrived hours earlier from a long plane trip, Mayberry had caught one, and spent the night updating everyone on her condition, which seemed to worsen with each song/sneeze. It hardly mattered.

They opened with “We Sink,” a galloping hit with a sneaky chorus and the kind of track most indie-pop bands would be lucky to write once an album cycle. (It has yet to even be selected as a single on Chvrches’ debut LP.) “I’ll be a thorn in your side for always,” Mayberry sang. “If we sink, we lift our love.” Jammed in elbow-to-elbow, butts-to-nuts, the crowd of mostly college kids echoed every word. New single “Gun” followed, with its pogoing Pet Shop Boys chorus eliciting a similar reaction of fist pumps and rapturous sing-along. Chvrches’ stage setup was minimal but effective: Cohorts Martin Doherty and Iain Cook flanked Mayberry with their lit-up synth stations and an angular installation of lighting strips floated behind all three. The combined effect concentrated all this light and color at center stage, where Mayberry bounced, occasionally danced, and mostly just brooded. During songs featuring some of the band’s more assaultive synths — a few of the stabs in “Lungs” were downright Skrillexian — the band achieved the kind of sensory overload practiced primarily by high-roller EDM DJs: no small feat.

“Dude,” exclaimed the dude next to me, “that bass is dope.” I couldn’t disagree.

Additional highlights included the peppermint-colored light show that accompanied the heartrendingly catchy “Recover”; Mayberry’s attempt to conceal a sneeze during slow jam “Tether” (“I liken that to figuring out when to sneeze while driving,” she said); and “Under the Tide,” the lone song Martin sings leads on, during which he bounced across the entire stage, rousing the crowd as the song reached its emphatic crescendo.

To no great surprise, the set was also short: just 12 songs. This is acceptable for a club gig, and obviously fulfilled the leave-’em-wantin’-more dictum. But a 45-minute set for 2,800 people struck me as a little thin, even for a band with this much hype behind it. Not that anyone was complaining. By the time they played “The Mother We Share,” the crowd was taffy, reacting as if the song had been around as long as “Blue Monday.” No one — least of all Chvrches themselves — seemed to notice or care that we were watching a band with relatively few shows, relatively few songs, and relatively little experience. A little lurgy wouldn’t dampen their spirits at the start of a triumphant march across the States. GARRETT KAMPS