Just ahead of Taking Back Sunday's annual holiday shows at NJ's Starland Ballroom, the band revealed that they got a call from the people at NYC's Irving Plaza, who mentioned they had sold out 99 shows in 2018 and wanted to hit 100 (which they've never done in one year before), and TBS decided to help them out. They made the last-minute announcement that they'd be playing there on Monday (12/17), and not only is Irving already a guaranteed sell-out for a band as popular as Taking Back Sunday, they sweetened the deal by promising to play their first three albums in full back to back to back.
Not surprisingly, the show did sell out immediately, and fast forward to Monday, all those lucky fans who got tickets were cramming into the packed Irving Plaza, waiting anxiously for the band to take the stage. They finally arrived 45 minutes past their advertised start time, and frontman Adam Lazzara came out swinging (literally) as the band launched straight into their 2002 debut Tell All Your Friends.
For those who grew up on the turn-of-the-millennium boom of pop punk and emo, Taking Back Sunday's first three albums are formative. With just Tell All Your Friends alone, TBS became an iconic emo band. Adam Lazarra and John Nolan's dueling vocal style and Lazzara’s onstage mic swinging antics defined the era. After John Nolan and Shaun Cooper left to form Straylight Run and Nolan was replaced by Breaking Pangaea's Fred Mascherino, TBS went on to make Where You Want To Be and Louder Now, the latter of which produced their biggest single, "MakeDamnSure." Nolan and Cooper rejoined in 2010, made three more albums with TBS, and now they're celebrating their 20th anniversary together with this tour (which comes just months after founding guitarist Eddie Reyes' departure). Most cities have TBS playing two nights with two albums per night, but this NYC show is the one night they decided to attempt all three at once, making for a set that lasted nearly three hours and was a herculean effort in fan service. It was a night of nostalgia, reflection, and for most people there, fun.
Tell All Your Friends is an angry breakup album and some of the teenage sentiment that made it such a big hit is tough to stomach in 2018. During “Cute Without The E,” and “Great Romances of the 20th Century” there were bits that Lazzara seemed like he no longer cared about taking part in. He also seemed to have a few technical difficulties at times, but no matter -- the crowd screamed every single word the whole time (and of course there were times where he intentionally turned the mic over to the crowd).
It’s the presence of these songs that allow “Ghost Man on Third” to still hold up as a brooding, depressing emo classic. And of course “Timberwolves at New Jersey” still bops. Jesse Lacey diss track “There’s No ‘I’ in Team” was eerie given the sexual misconduct allegations that had come to light last year. “Best friends means you get what you deserve” takes on a whole new meaning. Noticeably absent from the set was bonus track “The Ballad of Sal Villanueva.”
Every few songs, the band would stop playing and Lazzara would have a story to tell about a song, or the record, or the venue. The night was a history lesson as much as it was an authentic performance of the record. Between Lazzara and John Nolan's dual vocals and the band's friend/tour manager Neil Rubenstein coming on stage to scream his guest vocal parts of Tell All Your Friends, it felt just like the old days. Then came Where You Want To Be.
Where You Want To Be is my pick for best Taking Back Sunday album. “Set Phasers to Stun” is their strongest opener by a New York mile and one of the best emo songs of the era. It’s not alone. “A Decade Under the Influence” and “One-Eighty By Summer” are some of the best songs in the band’s 15 years of recorded music. Lazzara sounded better on these songs, as he did on the album, and as a Where You Want To Be diehard, it was incredible to hear deeper cuts like “Bonus Mosh Pt. II” and “Little Devotional" that they rarely play live. Lazzara may have sung the wrong verse to start off “Number Five With a Bullet,” but by the time they restarted it and reached the last minute, it absolutely slapped.
Still, the absence of Fred Mascherino was felt during this album. Lazzara shared fewer stories and didn’t mention Mascherino by name, which felt kinda awkward. Whatever drama that took place during that era is ancient history, but it still prevented the band from talking directly about some of their greatest songs. It wasn’t just that this cut back on banter, which I’m sure many fans were pleased about. Mascherino was the backbone of songs like “This Photograph is Proof (I Know You Know)” and “New American Classic.” Without him, these would not have been written. There is a reason Taking Back Sunday refrains from performing these songs normally, and on Monday they fell a little flat because of his absence.
After a quick break, the band returned with Louder Now. This feels like the first album where Lazzara’s voice started to mature. By virtue of that, these songs sound better than they ever have. The album opens with the three singles “What’s It Feel Like To Be A Ghost,” “Liar (It Takes One To Know One)”, and “MakeDamnSure.” They may play them every night, but that dedication has resulted in refinement, not exhaustion. Following “MakeDamnSure” there was an exodus, but those who stayed were rewarded with the deeper cuts from Louder Now, the highlight of which was “My Blue Heaven,” a slow, heavy fan-favorite.
The night was a blessing for a nostalgic fanbase. For me, it was a reflection on problematic lyrics, epic breakdowns, and my own fandom. For Taking Back Sunday, who knows. Their most recent release Tidal Wave was met with great critical reception and saw them taking a mature turn that suited the strengths of the band. But how many fans appreciate that effort and how many just want Tell All Your Friends again? It’s hard to say and it’s unfair to pretend to know what either side is thinking.
But near the end of the show, right before “Spin,” the pit expanded and people ran in circles, spinning themselves dizzy. This is for a deep cut off Louder Now. A song that you may occasionally hear at a Taking Back Sunday show, but not a song they play every night. But there it was, and the fans knew what to do for this one. “Spin” means you spin, and that commitment, that passion makes me hopeful that the impact Taking Back Sunday has keeps them going for another 20 years.
Watch some videos from the show below:
Taking Back Sunday at Irving Plaza - 12/17/18 Setlist
Tell All Your Friends
You Know How I Do
Cute Without the 'E' (Cut from the Team)
There's No 'I' in Team
Great Romances of the 20th Century
Ghost Man on Third
Timberwolves at New Jersey
The Blue Channel
You're So Last Summer
Where You Want To Be
Set Phasers to Stun
Bonus Mosh Pt. II
A Decade Under the Influence
This Photograph Is Proof (I Know You Know)
New American Classic
I Am Fred Astaire
One-Eighty by Summer
Number Five with a Bullet
…Slowdance on the Inside
What's It Feel Like to Be a Ghost?
Liar (It Takes One to Know One)
Up Against (Blackout)
My Blue Heaven
I'll Let You Live