If you arrived at the Fillmore in beautiful downtown Silver Spring last Saturday expecting to hear an arty shoegaze band play haunting, lilting melodies similar to that one huge song you know, you’d have been surprised to be greeted instead with a high-energy poppy dance outfit playing 80’s throwback numbers. The Temper Trap, of late from London but originally hailing from Melbourne, Australia, came to the attention of most Americans via 2009’s mega-single “Sweet Disposition” -- that song seeps into your head with soaring falsetto vocals and a slowly building, dreamy melody, closing with an anthemic boom -- and it’s completely different from 90 percent of the rest of the band’s material. If you were that surprised guy, however, you were in the minority because Saturday’s show was a festival of superfans who recognized every song on the set list from the first note, shouting out lyrics for every song.
The band came on stage to blinding red strobe lights and the driving guitar riffs of “Repeater,” and when lead singer Dougy Mandagi sashayed on a minute or two later to take the microphone, the Fillmore went berserk. By the time the band started in on “Rabbit Hole,” one of the singles from their new eponymous album, most of the girls in the audience were screaming in a higher falsetto than Mandagi. “Rabbit Hole” began with that trademark falsetto, then built into a strobe-y wall of noise, with Mandagi shouting over it all - he doesn’t use the falsetto in every song, and when he’s singing in his regular voice he sounds a lot like Dennis DeYoung of Styx. Given the 80’s bent of TT’s music, it’s an appropriate fit.
Before “Trembling Hands,” Mandagi asked a number of girls in the front row if they’d like to come on stage and teach the audience how to “Dougy” - which apparently is a dance move comprised of total body undulation. He had plenty of volunteers, but the moment passed and the band continued on, mixing songs from the new album and from 2009’s Conditions. Many of the songs point directly back to the stuff Bronski Beat was putting out in the late 1980s, and it’s a combination of the falsetto vocals and the melodies themselves that give that impression. To highlight the throwback vibe of Temper Trap’s live show, for the closing number “Drum Song” Dougy took off his jacket (which he’d worn the entire night with the collar up, just for good measure) and whacked away at an a la carte kit set up at the front of the stage for him -- he poured water all over the bass drum, turned on the backlighting strobes, bounced the evening from 1988 to 2003.
After a very short break, the band reemerged and Dougy continued to work the crowd, pointing to all the ladies and even signing one girl's album rather than waiting until after the show. “Soldier On” started the encore, and it’s quiet and brooding, but everyone in the place knew what was coming. When the first chords of “Sweet Disposition” started, I don't care if you think Temper Trap is amazing or if you think they’re cheesier than Crocodile Dundee II, it puts a chill straight up your spine to the back of your neck. Temper Trap has said they want to avoid the gaping vacuum of the one-hit-wonder abyss, but if you’re going to go down as having one huge hit, it's a damn good one to have. While there may not be a song on the new album that comes close to the power of their 2009 hit, if the crowd’s response to the band on Saturday was any indication, Temper Trap is doing something right.