Academy 3, Manchester
30th November 2022
Nearly three years after playing their last pre-pandemic show here, the veteran indie rockers return to Academy 3.
993 days have passed since Nada Surf last played in Manchester, in this same room. It was March 13th, 2020, and by that time, the creeping spectre of the COVID-19 outbreak, which just weeks before had seemed like a distant, foreign problem, was looming too large to ignore. The veteran New Yorkers had powered on regardless, even earlier that week managing to swerve a ban on gatherings in Paris that forbade events attracting more than 1000 people by playing two shows instead of their originally-scheduled 1500-capacity one. By that point, they were raging against the dying of the light, as it became increasingly clear the world was about to change, permanently. Those at that last Manchester show would tell you there was something in the air; a sense of unease at being in a crowd, and a queasy acknowledgement that we might not be doing this again for a very long while.
Nearly 1000 days later, it transpires there might have been more than that hanging in the atmosphere around us. No sooner has frontman Matthew Caws referenced that gig before somebody roars back, “I caught COVID that night!” Was it worth it? You’d have to wager the answer’s yes, given that he’s back for more from Nada Surf at the first opportunity. The band had just released their ninth full-length, Never Not Together, a month prior when they were here last, and whilst it figures tonight, the lack of a new record to promote means they can delve deeper into the catalogue tonight.
“We’ve been starting out with some old songs these past few nights,” says Caws, moments after the band have opened proceedings with a rare early-set airing of Popular, the 1996 single that remains their best-known track, a scathing satire on the dynamics of high school acceptance that Surf fans would be quick to point out is an outlier in the band’s catalogue, with its brooding, spoken-word lyrics, snarling chorus and, in sounding as if it was plucked straight from the soundtrack to a particularly dark 90s teen movie, its slight sense of being a novelty track.
The early stages tonight, though, remind us that it wasn’t totally out-of-kilter for the band around the time of their debut LP, High/Low; the breakneck, freewheeling punk stylings of Telescope suggest as such, as does the noisy lo-fi of similarly vintage cut ‘The Plan’. From there on out, though, what tonight’s set really serves as a testament to is the band that Nada Surf have gone on to grow into, with those early tracks almost there deliberately to bring the contrast between them and what came next to our attention.
Over the years, Caws’ songwriting has evolved handsomely, with the watershed moment coming somewhere between 2003’s Let Go and 2005’s The Weight Is a Gift, records on which the band would finalise, and then perfect, their own indie rock blueprint, one which marries lush melodies with emotionally intelligent lyricism; Inside of Love, Do It Again and the irresistible Blonde on Blonde are all cases in point.
And whilst, elsewhere, there’s evidence of the group spreading their wings stylistically beyond those parameters in the years since – the quietly epic slow burner See These Bones, from 2008’s Lucky, is a standout. More recent material solidifies the sense that the band have mastered the identity they carved out in the mid-noughties, with a slew of tracks from the bright, breezy Never Not Together, including first ever take on Come Get Me, after Caws noticed that a review of the last Manchester show had lamented its omission. With good reason, too; it’s one of those records, more expansive, sprawling songs, with a slight country tinge to the way it unfurls.
What it shares with the rest of Never Not Together, and with the rest of this set, is an unshakable assuredness. Nada Surf are marking three decades as a band with this run, having formed in 1992, and this show was a testament to longevity. There are literal reminders of that; Caws mentions having played the Academy 3 so many times before, they and their long-serving front-of-house man know precisely how to navigate the sound issues that the room’s ceiling beams present. But figuratively speaking, this run through the band’s catalogue is a reminder of how gradually and gracefully they’ve grown into themselves over the years. A touching, entirely unplugged take on Blizzard of ’77 to close, with all four members leading the singalong, suggests their bond is as strong as it’s ever been.
Photo credit: Ian Corbridge
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