Travis at the State Theatre
Detroit, October 29, 2003
“Travis is so 2002.”
And with one chillingly brief email, my pal largely summarized the Glaswegian quartet’s post-Man Who existence.
In 1999, Travis broke worldwide on the strength of their second record’s four or five undeniable singles, and an addictive strain of rakish schoolboy charisma tingling from the tip of Fran Healy’s fauxhawk to the end of Dougie Payne’s long nose. The band headlined Reading. They sculpted Britney lovecheeze into a science fair volcano of spurting Morrissey heartache. And when Oasis took them touring through the USA, Travis turned heads. Americans didn’t care what the fuck a Wonderwall was. But goddamnit if that bopping “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” beat didn’t have the frat brothers swooning just like the betties in Great Britain. “Travis? Those guys are wicked ahhsome!”
But then came 2001, and The Invisible Band. It did well, but the album’s less obvious sway confused many. The Man Who‘s love anthems were for everyone, all the time; conversely, its follow-up was more one on one – a communication of singular intimacy. Problem was, no one (in the US, anyway) wanted to hear Healy’s heartfelt whispers. Caught up in Coldplay’s yellow spider web, the larger public – some critics, too – dismissed Invisible, perceiving it as an MOR snooze. A tour supporting the scented bath oil popternative of Dido only encouraged those assumptions. By 2002, Travis was drifting, their polite little songs casualties of another UK band’s somewhat bizarre US takeover. By 2003, they were only a flicker. “Travis? I hate that Sig Ep douche bag!”
The funny part here is Travis’ own separation from their timeline. They have hovered above the history and hearsay, grinning bemusedly at the critical constructs purporting a competition with Coldplay and generally not worrying about anything as trivial as stardom and singles. Writing for their fourth album, they dealt as a band with a life-threatening injury to their drummer, and dwelled on the darkness shading the world. Just as The Man Who was a party line to Fran Healy’s heart, and The Invisible Band a romantic handwritten letter, the new 12 Memories was a question, rendered in black and white: where’s the love, people?
This all came to bear on Travis’ State Theatre performance Wednesday night. Returning to the stage they’d once shared with Oasis, but debuting a set of more serious music, the band was inviting cheap criticism. “Oh, they’ve lost it,” some might say. Of course, this notion is ridiculous. When musicians write something as lovely as The Man Who, it’s almost as if they’re prohibited from moving past it, and Travis acknowledged this falsehood immediately. Taking the stage under cover of darkness, the foursome suddenly appeared as a fivesome. The new lad’s presence embraced the old shark-jumping cliché of adding band members to disguise diminished creativity, and then punted it to the cheap seats when his keys, drum programming, and elements of sequencing simply made the new material stronger. Shit, he even left the stage during the old barrelhouse rockers like “The Line is Fine” (from ’97’s Good Feeling).
Appearing as a winsome, Scottish version of Sonny Crockett, Fran Healy proved to be as affable as ever. But as the set continued, and Dougie Payne reclaimed his Coolest Bassist In Rock throne with each goofy, salacious hipsway, the dramas that bore out 12 Memories came tumbling out of Healy. The stage had always been a place to thank his fans, for Travis to give everything of themselves in a manner that suggested their own wonderment at people – American people, no less – actually paying to see them. On Wednesday, Healy was just as honest. But the crowd had become his confessor. It turns out that the perceptions had bothered him a bit.
Discussing “The Beautiful Occupation,” he accused critics who would label it an anti-war rant of lazy journalism. But it was obvious from the very real emotions on Healy’s face that he wasn’t slighting anyone. He wanted his audience to understand it from his perspective as a songwriter, to not simply accept the surface chatter. The moment was important since, in a larger sense, Healy was asking his fans to accept where Travis was now, unconditionally. You know, like lovers do. It became a theme of the evening, Healy’s hopes and fears about the world and his band (the full recovery of drummer Neil Primrose’s spinal injury), poured out in music both new and old. “Turn” surged forth like always; “Sing”‘s melody filled the State’s grand dome. The newer songs were not as immediate, but with Healy’s personal confessionals (and Payne’s ever present charm), they were equally embraced by the respectful crowd. If Travis had returned with a drippy, easily lovable single to rival its own past or the current embrace of Coldplay, the State might have been filled to the gills with radio singalong girls. Instead, the band made the record they needed to make, and arrived in America to explain why.
It was love at fourth sight.