Darren Hanlon and Tim Kasher at the Tractor: Thoughts on Frontmen, Talkative Crowds, and What it Means to Be Entertained

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Darren Hanlon's quiet, charming folk was drowned out by a talkative crowd at the Tractor on Saturday.
As a huge fan of Darren Hanlon's latest album, I Will Love You At All, I was curious to see how his bouncy, storytelling folk songs would translate live. For the most part, Hanlon was just as charming standing on the Tractor Tavern's stage Saturday night as he is on his latest record--but it's a totally different kind of charm. On I Will Love You At All, the Australian musician uses production to his songs' advantage: he intertwines violins and broken pianos with his guitar, layering the instruments like voices. The effect is toe-tapping, hummable; his pop is irresistible.

When Hanlon played live at the Tractor, though, it was just him with an acoustic guitar or banjo. Aside from "All These Things," when he brought a female vocalist on stage with him, there was no backing band. His charm came from the intimate, friendly demeanor he portrayed. He was chatty and easygoing, telling a five-minute story about competing in a pinball tournament at Shorty's last year, likening the experience to Rocky II, before launching into "Pinball Millionaire."

But for all of Hanlon's friendliness and ease, he didn't win the Tractor crowd over the way Tim Kasher did.

The most telling moment was at the end of Hanlon's set. For his last song, he walked to the edge of the stage and stood on top of his monitor, singing without a microphone. It was a great moment--brave and heartfelt--and it was impossible to hear. While a small crowd was gathered in front of the stage, attentively listening to Hanlon's song, the rest of the show-goers (the Tractor was pretty full) were talking amongst themselves and (I can only assume) not paying attention. When Hanlon sang unplugged, his voice was completely drowned out among those bar conversations. A few fans tried to shush the talkers, but to no avail. Hanlon's song was over quickly and he left the stage with little fanfare.

All of those conversations seemed to end when Kasher took the stage. The Omaha-bred lead singer of Cursive and The Good Life was clearly the man of the hour: the audience paid close to attention to his songs and sang along, even though his solo album--Game of Monogamy, on which he's currently touring and that provided most of the material for his set--has only been out for a month. On the one hand, Kasher is impossible to ignore when he's on stage. His backing band was rambunctious: between Kasher's slightly scratchy vocals, a trumpet (Kasher seems to showcase horns in every band, doesn't he?), a booming bass, destroyed drums, and a shredding cello, the sound completely took over a room.

But, really--aside from his multi-instrumental band--what was it about Kasher that captivated everyone so much more than Hanlon? I get that he's a great frontman. On Saturday night, he shook his shaggy Pete Rose haircut from side-to-side, soaking himself with sweat by the fourth song of his set. He strummed the shit out an acoustic guitar on songs that were built for electric. He belted out lyrics like, "I can't feel nothing at all," with his eyes closed and face grimaced, as if he was really miserable. He even covered David Bowie's "Soul Love."

Yes, Kasher is entertaining, but there was just something so obvious about his performance. His solo stuff sounds like Cursive and the Good Life smashed together; it retains his hallmark deliberate lyrics: "I want to have sex with all my old girlfriends again." There was no nuance to Kasher's act--it was entertaining but short of substance. To enjoy Hanlon's charm required listening, truly paying attention to his songs and stories, and maybe letting that imaginary barrier between the musician and the crowd fall. All Kasher's act required was a good performer and an audience ready to be entertained.

(Oh, and to everyone who goes to shows but thinks their private conversation is more important than the musicians on stage: why would you pay to see a show but not listen to the band? You could be at a regular bar instead.)

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