Tegan And Sara LIVE @ The Institute, Birmingham 12.6.13

Canadian pop duo Tegan And Sara are finally, 14 years after self-releasing their first album ‘Under Feet Like Ours’ in 1999, experiencing welcome and deserved mainstream recognition on the back of their seventh record ‘Heartthrob’ which came out earlier this year. On the final date of their U.K. tour at the 2000-capacity The Institute in Birmingham, they showed why they have developed such a large and dedicated fanbase even if chart success and awards may have eluded them prior to this latest effort. The strength of their back catalogue and the quality of their performance shows that while the mainstream may not have been ready for them before, they’ve clearly been ready for a good while.

Unfortunately for the support act, the critically adored Waxahatchee, Katie Crutchfield’s shy demeanour and deeply personal tunes of heartbreak and tragedy could barely connect in a room hungrily awaiting the night’s headliners. Tegan And Sara took to the stage at 9pm, opening with the upbeat ‘Drove Me Wild’, a fist-pumping anthem from ‘Heartthrob’ of equal parts Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen, best suited perhaps to cruising the Pacific Coast Highway in an open-top muscle car, yet still proving more than capable of lighting up a damp, muggy night in Digbeth all the same. The Quin twins then traded lead vocals on the next three sugary-sweet tracks, all taken from their latest album, the 4-man backing band getting into a particularly lively ‘I Couldn’t be Your Friend’. That bold opening almost didn’t pay off, the awestruck audience barely gathering themselves to offer the rudimentary applause before the next song started. Greeted with ecstatic cheers, ‘Back in Your Head’ from 2007 album ‘The Con’ received the warmest response yet, prompting a sing-along of the declaratory chorus as the venue lights went up to reveal a sea of happy people dancing. As the crowd cried for more fan favourites, the band dutifully obliged, effortlessly running through the title track from ‘The Con, Arrow and Walking with a Ghost’ (once covered by The White Stripes and formerly known as Tegan And Sara’s breakthrough single).

Even though the Quin sisters may now be staking a claim to the territory of pop queens Katy Perry and Rihanna, there’s no evidence of diva mentality creeping into their live show just yet. After a bra was thrown at Sara as she finished the last chords of ‘Walking with a Ghost’, a polite request followed that any under garments be thrown at either side of the performers, lest it be misconstrued in their peripheral vision as falling debris from the venue collapsing around them. As outed lesbians the sisters court a large following from the gay community and there’s normally no shortage of bras onstage by the end of their gigs yet they have made their awkwardness in the face of this attention another facet of their charm. They’re a different kind of popstar and it’s an altogether truly refreshing change.

In what initially seemed a misstep, two down-tempo ballads from ‘Heartthrob’ were paired together which with any other band might have been invitation to hit the bar. Instead ‘Shock to Your System’ and ‘How Come You Don’t Want Me’ captivated from beginning to end, drawing an awesomely strong vocal from Sara on the former’s refrain “What you are is lonely” as synthesizers and martial drums whipped up a terrific climactic maelstrom around her. Latest single ‘I Was a Fool’ was given a rapturous welcome before the band delved once more into the past, resurrecting ‘On Directing’, a song taken from 2009’s ‘Sainthood’, conceding that they didn’t care if it was popular or not, they wanted to play it. Like much of the pre-Heartthrob material aired, it went down a storm.

The central lyrical conceit of ‘On Directing’: “I know it turns you off when I get talking like a teen” neatly highlights the current divide in Tegan And Sara’s fanbase. On the divisive ‘Heartthrob’ the twins perfectly capture ‘80s-tinged romantic nostalgia with maturity and a poppier sound aimed for the charts while veteran fans may still yearn for earlier, arguably more relatable, angsty collections like 2004’s ‘So Jealous’. For this reviewer, it’s simple, a good tune is a good tune and they’ve got plenty.

After a euphoric version of their 2009 collaboration with superstar DJ Tiësto, ‘Feel It in My Bones’ and introductions to the band featuring a truly bizarre extended metaphor on the subject of whether or not they would eat an otter in the event of an apocalypse, the band finished with the aptly titled ‘Closer’. The twins later returned as a duo to perform acoustic renditions of ‘Call It Off’ and ‘Nineteen’. The call-and-response structure of the former has made it a live staple and this Birmingham audience’s participation turned it into something really special. Rejoined by their guitarist, they proceeded to dust off a number of songs going back as far as their debut in a lengthy medley with loud cheers for each snippet the crowd picked up. Ending with the bouncy 11-year old tune ‘Living Room’ with the full ensemble, Tegan And Sara showed why they’ve had the staying power to still be filling venues and delighting crowds wherever they go for so many years.

It’s been some time since Tegan And Sara last played these parts, in fact this was their first time in Birmingham, so these fans have waited patiently to hear their favourites sung live and it was well worth that wait. Luckily they plan to return to the U.K. later this year so look forward to hearing more from them soon.