By Chad Swiatecki
Special to the American-Statesman
About 40 minutes into an alternately playful and dead serious concert from The 1975 on Thursday night at Austin360 Amphitheater, singer Matty Healy turned a between-song pause into more of a moment to address some personnel news with the band. Playing its second show with fill-in drummer Freddy Sheed after full-time drummer George Daniel broke his shoulder slipping off the band’s tour bus, Healy said the band would play its next few songs with no drummer as an ode to their ailing bandmate.
Healy then told the firmly millennial crowd to do something pretty much unheard of these days: Put their smartphones back in their pockets and spend the next several minutes connecting with the music and people around them instead of staring at screens the size of a playing card. The memory of that undistracted connection would be far more valuable than any grainy and poorly lit video or still image, Healy said, before the band eased into “Me,” an ethereal, vocoder-drenched ballad. A synth drum track marked time while the well-lit drum set sat empty in tribute.
It was the most personal moment for the young but accomplished U.K. buzz band. Their near-90-minute set moved between bouncy, early-’80s new wave dance numbers and restrained, moody ballads, giving the audience a chance to do equal parts bobbing and swaying throughout.
The musical channels The 1975 travel in aren’t innovative by any stretch, but they are novel to fans who likely were conceived at the height of fame for bands like INXS and Duran Duran. Set opener “Love Me,” with a groove not unlike fellow Manchester band Happy Mondays, seemed so musically familiar that for a few seconds I mistook it for a cover of David Bowie’s “Fame.” But a few bars in, the template for the dancier portions of the night was set: Healy slyly grooved a few feet from the crowd during instrumental breaks, while his bandmates and two supporting players loosened things up as often as possible.
Some words need to be shared about backing musician John Waugh, who had a trio of show-stealing turns on tenor saxophone. This was especially the case on encore opener “If I Believe You,” as he enhanced and elevated a fine but otherwise slight ballad into something far sexier and complex than would seem possible judging from the track on the band’s recent chart topper “I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It.”
His embellishment, along with well-placed synths throughout, helped the mostly two-guitars-bass-drums lineup set the songs apart live, though as a rule their mid-tempo tunes such as “Somebody Else” live in an uncomfortable middle ground between the dance numbers and contemplative ballads the band does far better.
They seem to know this, and they finished with some of their strongest crowd movers. “Chocolate” is a pretty much undeniable pop song, and “Sex” is built on a guitar part that seems lifted straight out of the U2/Edge songbook, as Healy simultaneously laments and celebrates that an unnamed fling “has got a boyfriend anyway.”
It’s a youthful dilemma, constructed atop well-proven musical building blocks that the band and its audience have only just discovered. What comes next for both groups in the years ahead will be interesting to watch, but for now it all works thanks to the fresh energy and sincerity that was on display throughout the night.
Update: This post has been updated to correct the identification of the band’s tenor saxophone player.