Everybody likes a good surprise, especially when that surprise is Northwest indie champs The Thermals stopping by Upstream for an unannounced show at KEXP's Occidental Stage on Friday afternoon.
The show brought together a unique blend of long-time fans, people who had never seen the Portland trio before, and even a fair number of people who, long after the show ended, wouldn't realize that they'd seen one of the best bands bands to come out of the Pacific Northwest at the beginning of the 21st century.
This range of listeners was on full display before the start of the show. Sitting at oddly placed green tables in the middle of the park, veteran fans who found out about the show through clues on the band's Instagram waited alongside a couple, still in their work clothes, who stumbled across the show accidentally.
As frontman and guitarist Hutch Harris began the guitar-only intro of "Faces Stay With Me," from 2013's Desperate Ground, more onlookers began to gather, their ears perking up to the sound of free music drifting across the streets of Pioneer Square. Bassist Kathy Foster and drummer Westin Glass, bearing an open-mouthed grin for the big screen behind him, joined in, helping drive the song's propulsive tempo.
Once the band got going, it was a fairly routine, but successful enough set from a band famous for consistency. As fast, fun, and loud as any pop punk band worth three chords, The Thermals know their style and they know how to deliver. Harris yelped, Foster harmonized, and Glass smashed his cymbals, all with equal ease and confidence. They sounded as tight and assured as you'd expect from a band who has been playing together for 15 years.
Some might have thought of their Friday afternoon set as a warm up lap for their show later that night at Comedy Underground, whose neon green sign you could see from the Occidental Park Stage. Word on the street (and the bus ride home) was that their performance in the smaller (and sweatier) space later that night was an incredible show, though also a more abrupt introduction for first-time fans more at the "getting to know the songs" level of interest than the "Harris' spit got on my face!" degree of fandom. To say the least, the dog with a red frisbee in its mouth (as well as any underage listeners) wouldn't have gotten through the door to see the The Thermals' heavy set at Comedy Underground.
Which isn't to say that the Occidental Park Stage performance added nothing new to long-time listeners' experiences with the band.
Take Mike M., who whipped his long blonde hair around as The Thermals busted out back-to-back hits from 2006's now-classic The Body, The Blood, and the Machine to finish the show. Earlier, Mike had heard about the free show, but had no idea who would be playing. After winning a heated match of rock paper scissors to determine who got to leave work early, Mike biked from Capitol Hill to check out what Upstream had to offer.
Seeing The Thermals, who he's caught a handful of times since moving to Seattle seven years ago, was a total surprise. That the band closed with his favorite song, "A Pillar of Salt," was even better. What was his take on the show?
"I thought it was really cool to have some folks here who had obviously seen them before and then a lot of folks who I think had never heard of them," said Mike. "That's a really fun thing."
Everybody loves a good surprise, especially when it's shared with others.
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