For more than four hours Friday night at Radio Radio, The Elms said goodbye the best way they knew how – they played heartland rock and roll.
Billed as a final performance as the Seymour-based group disbands, singer Owen Thomas and the rest of the gang went out on their terms. The show was Springsteenian in length, and showcased what they were ultimately best at: crafting memorable – and many times anthemic – pop/rock songs, showing roots of artists like Mellencamp and Petty.
The crowd (the show sold out well ahead of Friday) hung in there all night, through a 40-song set, rewarded with a sprint to the end that rocked heartily. They came to bid goodbye and fed energy back to the band, who was near the top of their game all night.
Thomas struggled to maintain his cool (though never lost his composure) early on, fighting back some tears as he talked to the crowd. As he told the audience before introducing the band, “You have two options: you can either be ‘profesh’ (as in professional) or you can let it all in.”
An early highlight was “Strut”, as guitarist Thom Daugherty showed why he may be one of the best rock and roll guitarists around, mixing sweetly nasty chords and powerfully elegant leads all night long. “Thunderhead” included great harmonies and the familiar “we can make it if you trust me” theme that permeates much of their best work.
Thomas told a story about a $150 jean jacket, with a flower sewn on it, that he bought in LA at a vintage clothing story, and that he had never worn it because the sleeves were too stiff. He said he washed it 40 times, and nothing worked to soften it. So he off cut the sleeves, and pulled it out of his closet and wore it for the last show.
Such was the tone of the night, with many songs, and lots of talking between them. Sometimes Thomas recounted a story about a bandmember, and other times said “I love you, I love you” to the crowd.
The others, including Owen’s brother Chris on drums and Nathan Bennett on bass, were more stoic, though Daugherty, who has been a friends with the singer since fourth grade, sweetly laid his head on Thomas’ shoulder at the end of the duo playing “Smile at Life Again”.
“You Got No Room to Talk!” from 2002’s Truth, Soul and Rock and Roll album mined the Bryan Adams territory they visit so well; Sugary-yet-powerful chord changes, drums that pushed the song and lyrics specific enough to mean something, and universal enough that you can make it your own story.
Hitting their stride with “The Workingman”, dedicated to their dads, and “Unless God Appears First” (possibly the best performance of the night), “The Tower and the Trains”, from 2006’s The Chess Hotel was introduced as an ode to their hometown, and Daugherty tore it up on guitar, while the rest of band broke out of the three-chord rock and roll songbook to get a little Zep-like.
A sprint to the end included “This is How the World Will End”, from The Great American Midrange album, and another example of why it is their best record. Gospel mixed with rock mixed with Elms. The same can be said for “The Way I Will”, one of the Chess Hotel’s pieces of power pop brilliance, and the energy of the night made the live version memorable.
Rockers “Back to Indiana”, “The Shake” and “Nothin’ to Do with Love” set the stage for “A Place in the Sun”, the final song off their final album. In the days leading up to the final show, Thomas has posted on his blog how the song had become his favorite. It’s message of finding one’s place in the world no doubt resonated deeply as the band prepared to quit.
There’s two questions to be asked: Was it a great show, and what made it worthy of a final performance?
The band answered with a show epic in length and heartfelt in delivery. The Elms were tight and aggressive when they played, and there was certainly no mistaking the love of the crowd for the four guys who grew from kids into adults in ten years, four albums, and hundreds of shows (and van rides) together.
For one last night, the bandmembers wore their hearts out in the open, and made some loud – and hopeful – noise, much like they have been doing in their decade together.
And if you are going to say a rock and roll goodbye, have a final blowout. And that’s what they did.