Best Coast: a bit like home

Photo by Jashua Peter Grafstein for
Photo by Jashua Peter Grafstein for

Much has been said about the arena rock potential of Best Coast’s latest album and major label debut, California Nights. The band has beefed up its power-pop and indulged in fast-paced guitar solos, but this past Wednesday at the Imperial, Best Coast generally avoided tiresome “rock star” clichés.

Openers Bully have been steadily gaining praise from lovers of 90s rock. The Nashville quartet strongly adheres to the LOUD-quiet-LOUD dynamic, and there’s a bit of Courtney Love in singer/guitarist Alicia Bognanno’s scratchy yelp, but otherwise, the band carries itself with a presence all its own. Their lyrics are direct and personal – no schmaltz in their precise, confident performance.

Songs from their upcoming debut album, Feels Like, barreled out in a flurry of chunky, palm-muted guitar-strokes and bends so strong I felt myself warp along with the strings. The drumming was on-point, and eyes even locked onto the bassist who broke the stereotype of being the most physically reserved member of a band. By “Sharktooth” halfway through the set, the crowd started packing together tightly in front of the stage. “Brainfreeze”, “Trash”, “Picture”, and “Trying” had fans bobbing their heads, but the less-than-two-minute blitz of snarling single, “I Remember”, pushed them to another level of body movement.

It says something about a young, opening band when some fans can be heard bidding each other good night and then disappear for the rest of the show, as they did at the Imperial. Bully release Feels Like on June 23 via Startime International.

Best Coast emerged looking fresh as they kicked off their tour in Vancouver. They opened not with a new song but the title-track from their previous album, 2012’s The Only Place. Selections from California Nights generated positive responses, but the crowd undeniably popped most loudly for old favourites, especially from Best Coast’s debut album, 2010’s Crazy For You: the title-track, “Goodbye”, “Boyfriend” – singer Bethany Cosentino went guitar-free for “The End” which allowed her to affect rock star mannerisms more easily. (Thankfully, excessive wavy hand gestures and facial contortions and other contrivances like initiating a clap-along didn’t last for more than a song or two.) She too seemed most enthusiastic about Best Coast’s earlier songs, which she sang with the less polished spirit of her younger self.

Best Coast didn’t base their show on old hits though: the band played nearly all of California Nights. Core member Bobb Bruno’s guitar solos during new favourites “Heaven Sent” and “Fine Without You” sounded tailor-made for arenas. Radio-ready pop songs like the bouncy “Fading Fast” proved their worth, animating the crowd with instant hooks.

On heartfelt, downtempo songs that included “No One Like You” and the woozy “Dreaming My Life Away”, Cosentino displayed the vocal work she’d made a point of exercising at least since The Only Place. The night’s mood shifted most dramatically as the lights dimmed, and the band plunged into the new album’s title-track. “California Nights” runs just a bit over five minutes making it Best Coast’s longest song yet. It’s also their least characteristic song: vast, heady, and one of two songs on which they employed a small synthesizer on stage.

Best Coast’s anthemic reach peaked with California Nights‘ opener, “Feeling OK”; the song’s chorus clears away clouds (as well as it can amidst lyrics about depression). Cosentino has never been lauded for her lyrical dexterity, and it becomes especially noticeable after three full-length albums. But perhaps intentionally, in a live setting, big riffs like the backbone of “Feeling OK” pulled the focus from her words.

Although nobody gifted the band with a joint, letters, or flowers, fans expressed their appreciation by chanting for an encore. But Best Coast bucked that rock star convention, preserving what little remains of the ritual’s sanctity.

Whether playing nearly floor-level at the Biltmore or exalted on the Imperial’s high stage, as a trio or, in Wednesday’s case, a robust five-piece – however sharply or lackadaisically Best Coast perform, they always appear to feel a bit at home in Vancouver. Arena prospects are all speculative, but the band seems to know the right moves, and even if Best Coast come off as hesitant to fully play the part at this juncture, there shouldn’t be much doubt that however gradually they develop, they will grow comfortably into the role.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu