Those with long memories might remember the April date in 1981 when a young Irish band called U2 played Bogart’s in Corryville in support of their debut album, Boy. There was already a developing buzz about this group, which had risen from the New Wave of Alternative Rock then sweeping Great Britain and Ireland, and it gave the show a keen sense of excitement and anticipation.
And, indeed, U2 delivered on that buzz — their career soared a year or two later as they became the biggest rock band on the planet. That show remains the only time they ever played Cincinnati.
Not to belabor the comparisons, but there’s a similar anticipation about Scottish Indie Rock band Frightened Rabbit’s first-ever Cincinnati-area concert Thursday at the Southgate House. Since their first U.S. tour in 2007 — and especially since the recent release of their third studio album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks — the five-piece band has been earning lots of mentions as the next U2.
Frightened Rabbit’s founder and leader, singer/lyricist/rhythm guitarist Scott Hutchison, specializes in letting his voice convey both passionate strength and melancholy while the band plays rousing, anthemic Rock powered by textured rhythm and a wash of dense sound. Much like the young Bono. It’s a big sound.
The songs, on the other hand, don’t always yield such obvious meaning as U2’s — Winter’s titles like “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” “The Loneliness and the Scream” and “Foot Shooter” indicate you might have to plumb its depths, like a Scottish loch, to get to the bottom of the band’s lyrical concerns.
But when you do listen carefully, Frightened Rabbit’s songs (like U2’s) on this new album are about a desperate, urgent search for spiritual meaning in a material world. The first song on the disc, simply called “Things,” is a good example: “I didn’t need these things, I didn’t need them/ Pointless artefacts from a mediocre past/ So I shed my clothes, I shed my flesh/ Down to the bone and burned the rest/ I didn’t need these things, I didn’t need them/ Took them all to bits, turned them outside in/ And I left them on the floor/ And ran for dear life through the door.”
These comparisons both delight 28-year-old Hutchison and also lead him to point out the differences.
“I’ve always been a fan of U2 — I remember when I was in my teens I went to see U2 in Ireland and it was one of the most affecting live shows I’ve seen,” Hutchison says by phone while driving across the western U.S. to open the Frightened Rabbit tour in Little Rock, Ark. Because of volcanic ash-caused plane delays, the band had to cancel several West Coast shows — including Coachella — but still flew into L.A. from Great Britain.
“They have a kind of straight line through to the softest part of you,” Hutchison continues about U2. “They do something that’s quite humanist and it’s easy to dissolve yourself into it. In that sense, I like the way they work and I don’t mind the comparisons.”
However, he says, there are key differences. “I’d like to think we’re lyrically more dense, and slightly more abstract than U2. They tend to go for much more obvious, clear anthemic choruses, where I like to shift to the left where that’s concerned."
Hutchison describes Frightened Rabbit as “essentially a guitar band with a big organ sound and keyboards.” And it took several years to get to that point. Frightened Rabbit started in 2003 as just Hutchison, playing solo.
“That name relates to the nickname I was given by my parents when I was younger,” he explains. “When I was forced into social situations with other kids, I wasn’t very responsive. I would just sit in the corner, frightened-rabbit look on my face. So I thought it would be fun to name a band that, since hopefully (I) would be playing in front of lots of people.”
When his brother, drummer Grant, joined him, Hutchison made the decision to build Frightened Rabbit into a full band. But he's done so slowly, adding one full-time touring member at a time to get to the current size of five, enabling him to better present the material live.
“I didn’t want to rush it,” he explains. “We had a member before who didn’t work out and we had to let go. So that made us very cautious when adding new members. But we have a permanent foundation for the future. People are here because they want to be here, in the band.”
Cincinnatians with long memories might also remember a 1983 show at Bogart’s by an explosive, roaringly tuneful new Scottish band called Big Country, who coaxed a distinctive bagpipe sound out of their guitar playing and were compared to U2. Overexposure on MTV — which made the band’s song “In a Big Country” a hit — and other factors limited Big Country’s career, but they still have fans who fondly recall them.
“I do remember them, although I was not old enough to go to their concerts,” Hutchison says. “But I remember them from television. There is something about Scotland and its landscape that does encourage this big sound. It’s quite a dramatic place in parts and beautiful. There’s definitely a connection between that and the music that comes out of it.”
FRIGHTENED RABBIT plays the Southgate House Thursday with Maps & Atlases and Our Brother the Native. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.
The lads will make a free in-store appearance and play some acoustic tunes at 7 p.m. at Shake It Records in Northside.