Mister Heavenly announced on November 30th, first that they were a band, and second that they were going on tour starting that night in Seattle. The tour would be 10 dates long (later changed to 12), eight of the performances being opening slots for the perpetually-touring Passion Pit. The band was initially slated to be comprised of The Unicorns/Islands/Human Highway frontman Nick Thorburn, equally impressive Man Man frontman Honus Honus and Modest Mouse (and future Shins) drummer Joe Plummer. Later, it was revealed that everyone’s favorite frightened baby bird looking actor Michael Cera would be the touring bassist. Obviously, this is something we figured you’d be interested in, and as such, last night in SLC (one of the non-Passion Pit dates, fortunately), CoS got your back.
First things first, let me take this opportunity to briefly describe Salt Lake’s infamous Kilby Court. Kilby is a venue that was once a garage, and accordingly, fits very few people; 150 to be exact. That limit was far exceeded on this particular night, to the extent that the fire marshal was called and threatened to shut down the show. And it was mostly due to Scott Pilgrim. Everybody was dying to get a taste of Juno’s boyfriend.
As the band took the stage, this became instantly apparent. Nick T, followed by Honus and Plummer took the stage first, to mild cheers. But George Michael, who came onstage separately, received uproarious fanfare. Now, I have no problem with the kid himself. I loved Superbad, Juno was pretty all right, and Arrested Development remains one of the best written shows to have ever aired on TV. His fanbase, however, I have a problem with. And if I didn’t have a problem with them before, I certainly would have developed one with them after this show.
The stage, barely a foot off the ground, was surrounded by obnoxiously dressed adoring teens begging for high-fives and fan pics. One brave individual literally jumped on stage to get a photo with him before the music started. And you know what? Good for Michael Cera. But I feel that 85% of the attendees were missing the message. This was an indie supergroup about to perform brand new songs of a brand new genre they had labeled “Doom-Wop”, and that was what should have been getting them all hot and bothered. Nick Thorburn and Honus Honus are two extremely unsung heroes in the indie world, and Joe Plummer is an exceptionally talented musician. And yet, the crowd was losing their minds for Paulie Bleeker.
I hoped that once the music commenced, the cat calls of “We love you, Michael!” would cease, but it remained fairly constant as the night went on. But we’ll leave all that infinite playlist business behind us and focus on what was important in the end: the music.
Having been a massive Unicorns/Islands fan, I was extremely excited to see what Thorburn had up his sleeve for this allegedly genre-creating side project. As it turns out, “Doom-Wop” is a lot like Islands, and even more like Man Man. That’s not to say that “Doom-Wop” was entirely a regurgitation of their previous projects, or even a misnomer (in fact, I think it’s quite aptly named). But the influences of their collective previous knowledge was vastly apparent throughout the set.
Nick T addressed the crowd saying “Let’s do this quick, before they kick us out of here.” And do it quick they did. Jumping right into a very Thorburn vocal-heavy song with a very jaunty bass riff (as it turns out, Jack Black’s pre-historic sidekick can play pretty well) and a borderline ragtime barrage of keys, we were introduced to Mister Heavenly. The original doo-wop genre involves a lot of vocal harmonizing, and as such, lead vocals were shared 50/50 with Honus Honus. At points, the two frontmen would take turns at the helm, singing backup for one another, but for the majority of the show, they combined voices to create a beautiful blend of rough and raw (Honus) and sweet and delicate (Thorburn).
Not surprisingly, vocals were obviously the most important element of the project, but the instrumentation was superb as well. To say that Plummer did a good job behind the kit would be a vast understatement. Switching gears between slow swing beats and straight post-rock breakdowns, Plummer matched the mood at every point. Honus was devilishly proficient behind the keys, bouncing along with the tempo, most of the time controlling the melody. Thorburn, while mainly on vocals, provided the basic chords with which to harmonize, and even Cera carried his weight, laying down simple, yet essential bass riffs.
The reason I say Doom-Wop is a fitting name for what Mister Heavenly is doing is because they often times sound like a 50’s street corner gang, borrowing swing beats, harmonies, and simple bass foundations, but also throw in over-the-top vocals, drums, and keys. Furthermore, Nick T, known for his foreboding lyrics, was in full-form. Dealing with love, but also with death and destruction, the doom portion of the doom-wopping felt even more fitting due to the ominous lyricism.
This being one of only four headlining dates, they didn’t have much material to flaunt, and the set lasted just under an hour. Thorburn threw his hands up, saying “That’s all we got!”, and they played themselves off with one last quick song.
But if there was anything to be learned about the night it was this: Mister Heavenly is for real. Doom-Wop is real, and it’s enthralling. We should all anxiously be awaiting a studio release, which they have hinted will drop this spring. Cera shouldn’t be ignored, as he is a proficient bassist, but he should not be the focal point of the band. Unfortunately, that is something that probably won’t change anytime soon. The phrase “Michael Cera’s band” is one that will more than likely stick around. But at the end of the day, the band belongs to Nick Thorburn, Honus Honus, and Joe Plummer. The three have formed a formidable band from which we should expect interesting things. Nick Thorburn asked the crowd at one point in the night “Is the fire marshal still here? Just know your lives are all in danger. Hope it’s worth it.” Your answer, Nick Thorburn? Mister Heavenly is worth every fire hazard this world has to offer.