Tegan And Sara “go pop” at Pabst Theater
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It’s been a long road to fame for Canadian indie-rock duo Tegan And Sara, which isn’t to say they’ve been languishing in obscurity. Far from it. The duo has been steadily cultivating a passionate fan base with their charming electro-acoustic pop for some 14 years now, but while they’ve been indie staples for quite a while, it’s only recently that they’ve crossed over to a much broader audience. By their own admission, the new Heartthrob—their first album in four years—is engineered to cast a wide net, designed to hook new fans and avoid alienating existing ones. That strategy has worked; Heartthrob has become their biggest seller to date, garnering almost universally positive reviews. Given that growing notoriety, one might have expected Thursday’s show at the Pabst Theater to be a big, slick affair. To a certain extent, it was, but the pair clearly haven’t forgotten the following that got them where they are today.
For those unfamiliar with Tegan and Sara Quin, in addition to being Canadian, they are sisters, identical twins, and both openly gay, and Milwaukee’s lesbian community turned out in full force Thursday night, to the point where the Pabst thought to convert one of the men’s bathrooms. The gender ratio also lent a remarkably higher pitch to the roar of cheers that greeted the duo as they came on stage—followed by their all-male backup band—giving the feeling that there were very few casual fans in the room—strange for a band that has actively courted new listeners of late, and done so very successfully.
In any case, there was a sense of familiarity in the air that Tegan And Sara seemed to pick up on, sounding genuinely appreciative in their revealing asides to the audience, like a rather long digression about a Whitney Houston-inspired sexual awakening. The catalog-spanning setlist had plenty of diverse examples of their impeccable songcraft, from twee folk-rock to broad Top 40 and slinky electro-pop, but it was the latter where the pair really shined, when acoustic guitars gave way to keyboards and the psychedelic projections playing across the geometric installations above them really got going. In fact, while the deep cuts and intimate moments were a treat for the diehards, a few more high-energy interludes would have been welcome.
Speculation that Tegan And Sara’s core audience wouldn’t follow them in their new, more commercial incarnation has proven to be unfounded, likely since fans are probably used to some unpredictability, and maybe even a little unevenness. There were moments where the pair crossed the line between well-constructed, elegant pop and highly polished schmaltz, such as an over-the-top version of the ballad “I Was A Fool,” but these were minor lapses in what was overall an entertaining, high-caliber show. Any missteps were dwarfed by memorable takes on “Walking With A Ghost,” “Shock To Your System,” and the Tiësto track “Feel It In My Bones,” the last of which finished the encore off with a bang after a short acoustic medley. In the end, after all those years in the indie box, there’s no reason Tegan And Sara shouldn’t want to “go pop.” If anything, Thursday’s performance proved it suits them rather well.