Luna rocks Mass MoCA in that oh-so-cute fashion

If they weren’t so damn cute, Luna would be the world’s greatest noir band: their best songs are urban travelogues, their lyrics come sprinkled with deadpan one-liners, and they have as intuitive an appreciation of vignette as any conventional band still earning a paycheck.

But, alas, Luna are cute. For all his swank cosmopolitan musings, singer/guitarist Dean Wareham – whose first band, the wonderful Galaxie 500, explored far more pastoral terrain – is just a big softie. Sure, Luna’s music is more modern, more self-aware and more “organized,” as one friend aptly put it, than that of G500, but it’s only slightly less fundamentally awestruck.

This was, for me, the great revelation of Luna’s excellent performance this Saturday at Mass MoCA, far and away the best rock concert I’ve seen this close to Williams in my three-plus years on campus. It’s tempting to dismiss the band as one-trick aesthetes – all sheen, no friction – but it’s completely wrongheaded to do so. The concert’s best moments were its sweetest: Wareham climbing to hit the falsetto notes in the glorious outro to “Moon Palace,” teasing drummer Lee Wall about his career choice, innocently warbling the Beat Happening standard “Indian Summer.” That the urban shtick coalesced more often than not was icing on the cake.

Thematically, the band and the museum seemed like a neat fit. Wareham, a Harvard grad, has Massachusetts roots, and his band’s hip, arty sheen dovetails conveniently with Mass MoCA’s own promotion campaign. But there was some cause for concern after the museum’s cavernous faux concert hall – a great space, to be sure – blunted the impact of the opening band, Northampton’s Drunk Stuntmen.

The Stuntmen, a vaguely alt-country quintet, had Son Volt-ish aspirations and an impressive chemistry, but never really connected with much of the audience. Blame it, at least in part, on the environs: at times, the band let stale gimmicks creep into its songs, but more often, it just seemed dwarfed by the size of the place.

But the venue was never a problem for Luna (who, incidentally, got a heartfelt introduction from Brendan Reid ’02). Despite a relatively new member (ex-Ben Lee bassist Britta Phillips) and some run-ins with hecklers, the band was thoroughly professional and convincing throughout the evening.

And Wareham’s songwriting – undervalued ever since the G500 days – proved to be weightier than it gets credit for. The band second song of the evening, “Sideshow by the Seashore,” still stands as a gris vignette entirely worthy of Wareham’s avowed heroes, the Velvet Underground. “Sideshow” was one of a half-dozen songs the band played from its third LP, 1995’s Penthouse, a loose concept album about city life that stands as one of the past decade’s most unerringly pleasant works.

The Penthouse songs, unsurprisingly, were among the evening’s standouts: “23 Minutes in Brussels” and “Rhythm King” were the concert’s strongest rock moments, and “Moon Palace” took on an almost elegiac grace it didn’t quite achieve in the studio. (Of the Penthouse tracks, only the frailly beautiful “Lost in Space” failed to transfer.)

With Wareham and company shunning some of their best-loved songs (no “Chinatown,” no “Slash Your Tires,” no “California All the Way,” no Galaxie 500 tunes), oddities and asides shaped much of the performance. Before a mid-show intermission, the band detoured into what Wareham called the “world portion of the show,” coupling the German-sung waltz “The Slow Song” with a cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s French-sung “Bonnie and Clyde” that found Wareham duetting with a barely audible Phillips.

While the latter – a Penthouse bonus track – has always been something of a showstopper, the former was a fantastic surprise. On the patchy second half of The Days of Our Nights, the band’s latest album, it seemed gimmicky and out of place; recontextualized in concert, it was glistening.

Immediately after the break came “Indian Summer,” a cover that gave Wareham’s wispy voice the chance to indulge its own fragileness. Sung with a fan’s reverence and an element of wistful nostalgia, it came across as a supremely touching gesture from a guy who’s beginning to look pretty old for a guy still playing the indie rock sweepstakes.

It should also be enough to shut up folks who complain about the band’s laconic stage presence. Sure, Wareham cut short the chorus lines of The Days of Our Nights’ “Superfreaky Memories” as if he couldn’t bear to hold a note, but it’s absurd to accuse him of lethargy or irony: this is, after all, a guy who encored with an earnest cover of Guns ’n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

Which, as it turns out, was one of the concert’s few sour notes: after a couple of hours of insinuating, elegant music, it felt like a cheap thrill. Of course, the crowd loved it, and if Luna consciously sent the kids home with a burst of nostalgia, well, that’s the band’s cutest gesture of all.

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