The Polaris show at The Knitting Factory was less a musical experience and more of an attempt to make the past manifest. For the uninitiated, Polaris was a one-off side-project of the band Miracle Legion that was formed to compose the soundtrack to the television show The Adventures of Pete and Pete
. Their songs were a perfect complement to the show's loopy attitude and deeply melancholy tone. No show other than Pete and Pete
so perfectly captures the feeling of the wonder and transience that hides in an environment as strange as suburban America and no music was ever so fitting a soundtrack for this world as the one Polaris provided. They captured the feel of that time and that place -- the long summer nights that never seemed to end, the coming of a fall you both dreaded because of school and anticipated because of all it promised, the early emotional growing pains and longings that as a child you could feel but never articulate -- in their wistful rock and melancholy lyrics.
To say the concert was burdened with improbable expectations was to understate the case. The conversations around me were all the same: everyone was here to relive their childhood, if only for a second; parents had actually brought their children in tow, hoping to expose them to the same music that had inspired them at that age; I heard thirty different opinions on what the best Pete and Pete episode was (it's "35 Hours," by the way) and as many arguments about the best Polaris song (it's "Summerbaby"). The tone of the room-wide conversation, which ran all throughout opening act Ski Lodge's workmanlike performance, was laden with a mystic reverence: it was like we were about to step back through a door and into our childhoods if only everyone was on the same page.
Polaris did not do much to dissuade us. Though the band members have all grown almost unrecognizably older, they carried themselves with the playful air of a group of nafs. Frontmant Mark Mulcahy traipsed around the stage like an overgrown Puck gone strange with age, his lips turned up devilishly at the corners, his footwork spry despite the weight and years. His reedy voice sounded no less pained than it did all those years ago when he first sang "Hey, Sandy" and defined the Saturday morning of a generation or mooned through the drunken stumble of "She is Staggering" and gave a group of children their first look at the best and the worst of the intoxications of infatuation.
Bassist Dave McCaffery looked and played like an overgrown child, his baby face and the exuberant way he attacked each note indicative of a man who may as well have picked up his first instrument and been astounded to learn that he, too, could make his own great music.
Scott Boutier, the drummer, (who seems to wear a sock upon his head) looked like every boy who's ever set down behind a drum kit: removed and focused and very, very serious about his play. The way they bantered with each other -- most of their conversations strange and rambling and without any kind of center or topic, full of in-jokes and intentional misunderstandings and sideways glances to other members not in on the conversation -- suggested the kind of insularity that defines children's friends groups.
It was welcome but eerie, this atmosphere, and it only grew eerier the more they dug into their songs. Aside from a few shades of rearrangement -- "Coronado II," which had always begged for a rockier kick got that much needed boost in the form of a banging drums; "As Usual" plays as something much more melancholy live than it ever does on the album -- each cut sounded as if they might have been recorded yesterday. Were people, I wondered, crying over "Everywhere" because they could relate to the loneliness at the heart of the song and how perfectly it captures the worst pain of heartbreak (the lingering presence) or because they remembered the first time they had ever heard it? Was I so thrilled about "Summerbaby" because it was such a perfect piece of mumble-stumble rock or because I was suddenly transported back to the Summer of 2006 when that song -- and my DVDs of Pete and Pete -- had gotten me through a time when I had, like the narrator of that tune, lingered around my house, unseen and unheard and unknown? I couldn't tell, the emotions were so overpowering. Even their cover of "Man on the Moon" sounded near-identical to R.E.M.'s original; if nostalgia was their theme then they could not have performed more spectacularly or picked a more relevant bit of outside flavor.
It reaffirmed something very real for me about the connection between concerts and nostalgia. It took a step towards proving my theory that concert going is a ritual meant not for listening to music or to build a community but to give face and body to the emotions we've associated with those songs that have come to define our lives; concerts make memories real, break down the barriers of abstraction and time that always stand between the feelings evoked by music and the present that keeps us from them.
As heady as this all sounds, though, the show was undoubtedly fun, no doubt I'd go again. The group has power-pop chops and is as sweet as they are bitter. It will be interesting to see if, now that they're back for the first time in 20 years, Polaris will do as I hope and give us a future instead of recycling our past. Those memories are worth revisiting; they are not worth living amongst.