The night of May 27, the Santa Barbara Bowl was awash with bright neon lights and pop rock melodies so polished they practically glistened as they hit your ear. Formerly up-and-coming, now recently arrived, indie radio rockers Walk the Moon and openers MisterWives were responsible for the vibrant evening of four-chord revelry and clean cut rebelliousness.
The concert started off with Manhattan indie pop act MisterWives, a fivesome led by the talented frontwoman Maddy Lee, boasting expansive vocal range and indefatigable onstage energy, and supported in no small part by dueling multi-instrumentalists Mike Murphy, on keyboard and tenor saxophone, and Jess Blum, on trumpet and keyboard, occasionally at the same time. Lee joked about how tired she was from running laps around the Bowl before people arrived at the show (just some buoyant, childlike fun with a friend) before making a serious, if lightheartedly delivered, point about how she was “sick of society’s standards for women and men.” From there, the band launched into “Not Your Way” off their 2015 album Not Your House, which they played like a Van Halen-style arena rock song even though it sounds closer to indie pop on record.
This song was one of Lee’s strongest vocally, as she belted lyrics like, “Not going to obey, to obey/This is my body, body/And you don’t have a say, have a say.” Earlier in the show, she spoke out against people who tell others to look or be a certain way, “to suck in our stomachs for photoshoots,” as well as a certain “racist, misogynist, homophobic coward” of an unnamed presidential candidate, quipping, “Love Trumps hate.”
When it was time for them to appear onstage, Walk the Moon entered to the glorious first refrain of “The Circle of Life,” the opening song from The Lion King, and then launched right into “Lisa Baby,” off their 2012 self-titled debut album. The reverb-drenched guitars and leading synth riff are just as uproarious live as they are on record. Guitarist Eli Maiman’s performance was especially strong, as his interesting and dynamic guitar parts lent their music a rich, stimulating quality.
A few songs in, lead singer and keyboard player Nicholas Petricca dedicated the next tune to “the beauty of being different” as he laid out a synth riff that recalled the soundtrack to Hotline Miami with pop harmonies, and Sean Waugaman provided drums that wouldn’t sound out of place in an iPhone commercial. The song, “Different Colors,” had a strong rebellious teenage appeal, with Petricca singing, “We keep cranking the music up/Driving through our towns/But they don’t wanna hear/They want us to turn it down,” referencing the strong, fundamental differences between teenagers and the adults surrounding them. Petricca throws down his support for the teenagers, saying, “We’re just different colors…We know the kids are right.”
Another highlight was a spirited cover of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” one of the band’s primary influences, which pretty much everyone in the audience recognized and cheered on zealously. Then came “Up 2 U,” fueled by righteous-sounding guitar chords, like Ray was preaching a musical style, and punctuated by Petricca shouting the final refrain of “I can’t believe my eyes” repeatedly into a megaphone. At the final stretch of the song, the notes of Ray’s shredded guitar solo distorted into each other, so you couldn’t discern where one note ended and the other began.
Walk the Moon ended its set with two songs from their first album, “Tightrope” and “Anna Sun,” the latter being the track that made them famous. The band extended the ending of “Anna Sun” with chaotic keyboard and guitar parts, with frenzied drums to match, and it is during these moments of controlled spontaneity and coolness that make you wonder how great Walk the Moon could be if they broke out of their pop mold. As the broad label of “indie” becomes ironically more and more affiliated with Top 40 radio hits, Walk the Moon seems concerned with fitting in with corporate conveniences than letting their “different colors” show, outside of the neon lights that lit up the night of May 27 but obscured the moon from view.