Album anniversary tours are a dime a dozen these days, but when The Antlers announced plans to commemorate the tenth birthday of Hospice, it felt special for a couple of reasons.
First, the Hospice dates would be the Brooklyn indie rock band’s first live shows in four years, a period during which their inactivity spurred frontman Peter Silberman to deny rumors that they had broken up. Second, rather than simply playing the songs exactly as they appeared on the original record, they would be reworking the entire album in a scaled-down acoustic setting. The main reason a Hospice anniversary tour promised to be a momentous occasion, however, is simply because Hospice is a momentous album, its seamless transitions from twinkling ambient passages to heart-scalding expurgations of raw feeling giving the potentially maudlin love-and-cancer narrative some serious weight.
Once the audience Tuesday night (March 26) at The Sinclair in Cambridge took their seats (the venue had put out folding chairs for this show, something I’d never seen them do before), Tim Mislock began his set of evocative, atmospheric instrumentals performed on solo electric guitar. He would meticulously layer guitar loops, each composition slowly gaining mass and eventually filling the room with sound without ever boiling over; think Explosions in the Sky without the loud parts — or, for that matter, the interludes on Hospice.
When Mislock explained that the album from which these pieces originated, 2017’s Now is the Last Best Time, had been inspired by the experience of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, another thread connecting his performance to the album being celebrated that night became visible. Rarely does an opening act thematically complement the headliner so thoroughly; though since Mislock is currently The Antlers’ touring guitarist, perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
An important decision which any artist embarking on an album anniversary tour must make is whether they will perform the album in question at the beginning or end of their set. As Silberman, Mislock, and drummer Michael Lerner walked out, took their positions on stools arranged in a semicircle, and wordlessly went into “Prologue,” it became clear that The Antlers had elected for the former option, and the crowd fell into a suitably reverent silence. With Silberman strumming an acoustic guitar, Lerner tapping a single snare with soft sticks and brushes, Mislock conjuring washes of electric guitar, and fourth musician Kelly Pratt adding woodwind or trumpet as needed, the setup was, if not strictly acoustic, certainly more hushed and intimate. The ultimate effect was a funereal atmosphere (I couldn’t help but think of Nirvana and their candlelit “MTV Unplugged” concert) whose gravitas suited the death-fixated Hospice material.
Keeping the volume to a minimum put more focus than usual on Silberman’s angelic falsetto, and he handled that pressure with grace, hitting every crucial high note and even nailing Sharon Van Etten’s contribution to “Thirteen” with minimal strain. The absence of a full band also forced Silberman to forego the garment-rending wails which so memorably punctuated “Sylvia” and “Epilogue,” though the wistfulness with which he now approaches these songs felt like an honest admission that his days of screaming with the unhinged passion of youth are best left in the past.
Thankfully, this version of The Antlers still retained two of the band’s greatest strengths: Their richly detailed sonics and their emotionally gratifying crescendos. Mislock provided most of the former, his lulling, staticky guitar textures retaining the celestial qualities a purely acoustic Hospice would have lost, while the quietest moments of the set were so quiet that it took only a slight increase in volume from the band to produce an enormous effect with the latter.
The biggest downside to opening your anniversary album show with the album set is that you risk peaking too early, and sure enough The Antlers’ second set did feel a bit anticlimactic; though after the emotional gut-punch of Hospice, the prospect of a gentle comedown was far from unwelcome.
Compared to what preceded it, a conventional three-minute indie-rock song like “I Don’t Want Love” sounded downright jaunty, and the shuffling drums and sing-songy choruses of the acoustic guitar-led “Parade” and “Surrender” almost veered onto the wrong side of the line separating the merely pleasant from the terminally mellow. There were still definitely moments which recalled the mournful grandeur of the Hospice set, most notably the weightless weeper “Drift Dive” and the serene, set-ending lullaby “Putting the Dog to Sleep.”
After getting to hear such a gorgeous version of one of the decade’s most affecting albums, however, everything else was just icing.