Tegan And Sara’s “The Con X” At King’s Theatre, November 8th, 2017 Reviewed
Last night, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of their breakthrough album The Con, I finally caught up with Tegan And Sara at King’s Theatre and I was suitably impressed. The women could have used a drummer, their material is inconsistent to a degree, but there is no doubt that in a knocking on two hour set performing their beloved album and eight other selected songs, they understood their material and their audience, and performed with a lighthearted sweetness in tone belied by Sara’s post sulkiness depression and Tegan’s fragile physicality.
With no opening act, the twin sisters held back till 830pm before dimming and raising the lights over and over again as the lesbian plus crossover 20 to 30 something audience screamed in anticipation and then subsided till the sisters and two live band members were viewed on stage. The stage was stark, except for the oak tree stub that adorned the album cover in posters hung vertically from the roof, and Sara behind keyboards and Tegan behind an acoustic guitar. The women are not thrilling performers, movement is minimal, but what they lose on energy they gain on stage craft and conversation. But first they open the evening with “I Was Married,” perhaps the greatest exploration of not lesbianism as such, not marriage, but threats perceived and real. “I look into the mirror for evil that just does not exist. I don’t see what they see,” applies to miscegenation, really any racism, misogyny, homophobia… Sara Quinn’s bafflement at the hatred applied to her and the woman she loves, stands as a rebuke in the midst of a deep warmth.
“I Was Married” last 92 seconds only, but it has a panoramic pacifism that reminds me of “Imagine,” it leaves homophobia baffled. The rest of The Con isn’t as good, but really what is? It lasts 34 minutes and it takes Tegan And Sara and 70 minutes to get through it, as they interrupt each other with what amounts to extended shtick except that sounds unkind and it is difficult to be unkind to the very amusing duo. Sara is the manic depressive who claims “Dark Come Soon” is about suicide while Tegan (who wrote the song) says it was about nightfall. Tegan comes across a goofball, worried that, after a nasty fall, the medics can see her cleavage when they come to rush her to hospital, Sara the caustic contrarian who after “Back In Your Head” became a hit immediately grew to hate it, and compares it to Cheetos –it tastes good but it’s junk food.
T&S are Canadians who started performing together at the age of fifteen and were immediately successful, winning a talent contest and using the money to record an album, and then using that money to record another, before getting noticed and getting signed. Tegan mentions their 2000 song “Superstar” and it is terrific (they recommend somebody forms a T&S cover band because they won’t play it) and appeared ready from the get go and their career has been one consistent upward motion belieing their deprecated “peaked in 2007” stuff the moment you notice that “Closer,” –a sublime pop jones from 2013 they close their shows with, has 30M Spotify streams to its name alone.
I love The Con, having missed it entirely at the time (blame the Indigo girls for leaving me gun shy) I now note it as one of the cleverest explorations of the romantic fault lines in a new millennium: the women are as out as you can possibly be yet they keep to gender neutrality on the album. The title comes from the same titled number but more so the penultimate song on the album “Dark Come Soon”: “I conned, I lied”. The album is about relationships in transition; Tegan was just out of a six year romance and into a new affair, Sara thwarted by her own inability to be faithful, after the album was released and the band toured behind it, Sara was so depressed she refused to sing her songs. The twins are opposing ends that make a whole, Tegan the serial monogamist, Sara the player finding one love difficult and guilt wracking her. The only two songs to veer from that are both about their late Grandmother. Lesbianism, songs for lesbians about lesbians, is a little secondary. I called a bisexual friend of mine and asked her what she felt was the difference between dating men and dating women, she said that there really isn’t one except that women understand each other better. In The Con they know what they are going through, there isn’t confusion as the women approach and reject, but there is an uncertainty.
Watching it live last night, the women are ten years older, both in long term relationships, successful professional pop stars just, I mean just, a coupla years, past their peak, and their sense of deprecation is a little forced: it is the Canadian in them though it rings false. The new The Con X with major players covering songs off the album, is a who’s who of indie cred and gay cred -Ryan Adams, Cyndi Lauper, Shamir who just released one of the best albums of the year, and more. The songs are not so much lively as precise evocations of a long past. If success brings out the contrarian in Sara, and the album is their most successful, then how much fun is she having? Me? I’m having a lot of fun, the three song run, “Back In Your Head,” “Hop A Plane,” and “Soil, Soil” are simply wonderful and the mood is buoyant despite itself. For a show without a drummer, it doesn’t get boring, it is always full of thought and love and beauty… and sadness. At the time, The Con was deemed not lesbian enough and the The Con X, an album I adore, got dismissed a little for being depressing. Yeah, just like Get Happy!! an album it reminds me of because 1) the songs are short and plentiful and 2) they are very melodic and 3) depressing as a motherfucker so whatever. The difference is, Costello has a violent edge and I don’t just mean “you can’t stand it when I throw punchlines you can feel,” a frustrated emotionalism that edges towards eruptions. Sara has a different intellectual punishment: “Build a wall of books between us in our bed”. If you don’t think Costello should be advocating for heterosexuality, why should you expect Sara to be a spokesperson for lesbians? As it happens, the sisters are integral parts of the LGBTQ community, but what has that to do with music as such, the songs are about romance in distress and that’s what they are about.
The audience is heavily lesbian, but also heavily couples, in 2017 Tegan And Sara cut across party lines with all those girls experimenting in college switching sides half way through their first job. I was sitting next to a lesbian woman from Arizona who, when the band came on the stage, leaned herself forward with a rapturous expression on her face, even though we were pretty close to the stage. It felt as though the audience were between intense identification with and love of the band, there is something about the duo which presents itself as friends, as co-equals. About a third of the show is the sisters talking and they can tell a story, they should start a podcast. In most cases you’d consider that much talking a way of drawing out the evening (like starting it HALF AN HOUR LATE), but there is a skill to telling stories, between intimacy and canned, the truth and the conned if you like, and the sisters have a way at laughing at themselves even when dealing with serious subject matter, depression and injury, that has the audience gurgling with pleasure. It is the fake of the real (they tell their stories much better than Bruce on Broadway), they play off each other and that allows them to improvise around a constructed theme.
Once the album was over, they performed eight other songs and while it was intense and beautiful it lacked the coherence of the album and gave some justification to the warnings I’d received that they were bores live. Still, they’d accrued so much good will in the previous 80 minutes, it didn’t ruin my pleasure in a fine performance.