There’s a little more than what meets the eye when it comes to Foster the People. This is a band whose best-known song pairs the sort of melodies that get you to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 with lyrics about a school shooting. This is a band who isn’t afraid to bring back the whistle solo on a Top 10 jam (eat your heart out, Axl Rose!) And this is a band who has raised over 115,000 dollars on this tour for local charities in each city they stop in through a partnership with the Do-Good Bus.
Tuesday night at Terminal 5 in New York City, Foster the People’s three core members and the two touring multi-instrumentalists stared down the expectations of the hipster crowd and then blew them all away. Yes, there was the obligatory wow-look-where-we-are-now aside to the crowd—“We’ve never played this place before,” lead singer Mark Foster said between songs. “Months ago, we were playing at the Mercury Lounge.” But the show felt surprisingly fresh for a band with only one album. The audience knew what was coming, but didn’t care, because Foster the People flat out brings it live.
But before Foster and company took the stage, openers Cults readied the crowd for what was to come. Wearing their hair long and their clothes rumpled, Cults was firmly committed to their music’s 60’s vibe during the homecoming show for the two former NYU students. Lead singer Madeline Follin did her best flower child sway while grasping at her skirt and Brian Oblivion wore his best slept-in shirt as a black-and-white film played behind them and their touring band. Set opener “Abducted” supplied some bounce to the crowd milling about. Snapping to attention, the masses began to give Cults their due during the catchy xylophone riff of “Go Outside,” and the crunching guitars on “Oh My God” where Follin seemed to really mean her refrain of “Please don’t tell me you know the rules to go by.” It was a short set with little talking or audience interaction, though Follin and Oblivion did do a NYC neighborhood roll call, even giving a little love to oft-neglected Roosevelt Island.
And then it was Foster the People time. If you think they drop grooves on their recordings, hold onto your skinny jeans and v-neck shirts, because they blow your .mp3s away live. The percussion was phenomenal, right from the opening drum hits of “Houdini.” Drummer Mark Pontius’ traditional kit was at times supplemented by the following: a standing floor-tom by played by various band members, a cowbell, a maraca, a maraca playing a cymbal, and a maraca being thrown into the crowd.
Mark Foster was ever the versatile front man, one moment describing Foster the People’s mission to do more than just playing fun music, the next, simply putting on a show. It’s a rare singer that can share a story of fundraising for and volunteering at a New York homeless youth group and not seem preachy, and it is even rarer still to find one who can sweat through his shirt on “Miss You” while dancing in a highly kinetic slide across the front of the stage, arms alternating up and down in a precise fashion. Imagine David Bowie after lessons from MC Hammer and you’re close.
That might be a good way to describe Foster the People’s sound as well. It’s not every rock group that can break the Top Ten these days. It takes a certain hip-hop flair and a certain talent for earworm melody lines, though a light show like the one Foster the People had going on doesn’t hurt. “Helena Beat” and “Call It What You Want” were notable, but especially poignant was “I Would Do Anything For You” when the crowd joined in to sing along with the hook, “I’ve fallen in love/And it’s better than this time than ever before.”
The band left the stage a little abruptly with only “Pumped Up Kicks” left on most of the crowd’s mental encore playlist. However, when Foster came back out, he did so by himself. He sat down at the piano and introduced a new song, “Ruby,” saying it was his favorite one he’d ever written. While some in the crowd were antsy to hear the band’s smash hit and not this unknown tune, those willing to give Foster’s new composition a chance got swept up in a touching ballad about a bed-ridden woman with “everything and nothing to lose.” Soon, Foster’s bandmates came back on stage, leading to the song’s crescendo.
That was the main twist of the night: Foster the People teased with a hint of a simpler and more stripped down future, and then brought it back to the raucous present with an extended version of what most of the crowd had come for. This playing of “Pumped Up Kicks” featured a drumbeat alternating between normal, techno rave, and electronic breakout beat. The crowd was singing along and hands were waving side to side. It was a celebration of a band unafraid to put their songs’ hooks front and center, a band that doesn’t make you wait too long for the pay-off. In other words, a very fun live band who wants to be something a little bigger. Enjoy.