Stars is Torquil Campbell's band now and everyone knows it. Maybe it always has been, but the transition became official - or at least undeniable - at somewhere north of 1am at the Mercury Lounge, the most crowded of all the crowded rooms on New York's Lower East Side. Campbell stared into the stage lights, dressed in his full Morrissey-lite regalia of a blazer with pushed up sleeves and thick glasses that he lifted to make funny faces at the soundboard. Amy Milan, Campbell's bandmate, and the shining light of all the female voices in independent rock over the last decade, was noticeably absent, having already left the stage before the night's last song. Campbell didn't look relieved or triumphant, his affection for Milan is obvious and immutable, but he allowed himself a moment of strangeness, alone at the middle of the band he started and Milan helped make deservedly famous. To be clear, this was no power struggle. It was something more complicated, sweeter, more grinding, the second set in the span of a few hours, the story of a band releasing their sixth LP depending on who, and if, anyone is counting. Campbell, alone, led the band in a long slow cover of "This Charming Man", and Milan, presumably, grinned from somewhere not the stage.
Stars were performing rare double duty. First, a 9pm sold-out gig at Webster Hall, a venue that was literally transitioning into a nightclub for thousands as the audience left, where they played for 90 minutes, and a smaller set of rarities that kicked off at 12:45am at Mercury Lounge, a room that fire codes south of 200 people, all in celebration of the band's latest album, The North. It was a gear problem at the very least. Stars tour with an enormous amount of equipment, the product of a rich sound, strong record sales and the natural accumulation of a band approaching their third Presidential election on tour. An incredulous member of the Diamond Rings, the very excellent fellow Canadians who opened for Stars at Webster, mused to me, "I really have no idea how they'll get their stuff down to the second gig." It was a structural problem Stars fans didn't have, walking 11 blocks south and two avenues east in the two or so hours between shows. Milan asked the audience at the Mercury Lounge how many had attended the Webster show earlier in the evening, an unscientific poll that indicated it was something like half. A better question would have been how long it had been since Stars had played a room this small. Campbell, as if paying this uniqueness homage, yelled, "We're gonna play a bunch of shit we haven't played in years!" Milan elaborated and cleaned up, "I mean, you don't want to hear the same songs we just played, right?" Someone in the audience yelled, "Elevator Love Letter!", the song that made the band famous, that they had played at Webster and would not play at the second set.
Campbell is at home on stage, an emotional universe with customized physics, a quirky guy who has made a career being very earnest in public. His wireless mic has a piece of green tape with "Torq" written on it, a nickname that sounds like "Turk," when people say it quickly. He was late to the Webster Hall sound check on Saturday afternoon, a gesture that was surely more pell-mell than rock star righteousness. He is reported to be hugely generous and funny, and in front of his audiences he gives the impression of a guy going every direction at once, a bit of unrestrained ebullient id set against Milan's pleasant and organizing superego. He speaks as directly as he can before the last song at Mercury Lounge, "Thank you, we love you; thank you for spending money on our band. You make our lives possible." This brief monologue, an odd lifting of the most obvious curtain in independent rock, was perfect for an audience who spent 30 dollars on Webster tickets (though fans received a free digital copy of The North at Webster and the Mercury Lounge show was free) and endured seven dollar beers at both venues. It was a winning moment, not the reason that people love this band, but the correct and honest response to that love. Earlier, as they took the stage, a breathless girl in the balcony at Webster Hall leaned over to a friend and whispered loudly, "Set Yourself On Fire is my favorite album ever." Both nodded gravely, elegiac even. Nearly everyone in the audience feels some variation of this exact sentiment.
This all makes the night feel both public and private. Stars' fame practically relies on members of their fanbase having an intimate relationship with their music, a bedroom band who happily soundtracked and counseled a million heartbreaks. In public all these threads braid, all these fans who have had this overwrought and important experience with the music, all these fans who know the words to "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" the way school children know the Pledge of Allegence; it is both celebratory and a little intense, like an emotional, music jingoism, punk music for people that don't like punk music.
Stars, in this sense, are less a real band than they are a collection of memories their fans have about listening to their music. The live show is this memory come alive. The band opened their Webster Hall gig with latest single, "Theory of Relativity," a song that relies almost entirely on this type of unremembered nostalgia with Campbell channeling Moz, "back in lame grade 10, I was a total devestator, baby/ down in the school yard they all fell to their knees " before closing the loop with, "but it can't be '93, sadly, 'cause I wish it could forever/you call it luck, I call it tragedy." This is the central contradiction, not only that Campbell was aged 21 in 1993, a good bit of magical remembering, fans and a band caught between an intense remembered self and the colder realities of the present. Campbell's success and his ascendancy in the band is that he believes this remembered self can't die if you keep writing the right song about it. He is the keeper of our story. Milan, too, traffics in this imagery but with a few more reservations. The band's web address and Twitter handle are the appropriately democratic, "You Are Stars."
It is not all winsome reminiscence though. Polemical and a bit silly, Stars played their most didactic song ever, "Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It" in the middle of their Webster set, eleven years of emotional catharsis, wrapped into one fortune cookie message. It is also one their finest creations of pop music and one of the best songs of 2012. Campbell is his most powerful self, both brittle and relentless, equally fervent on apologias like, "If I'm frightened, if I'm high, it is my weakness, please forgive it," and its corrolary, "take the weakest thing in you and beat the bastards with it," the closest thing the Stars crowd gets to marching orders. Everyone was a little drunk, if not necessarily high, and increasingly resolute.
The Mercury Lounge set was lodged firmly in the past, the place where Campbell is most comfortable. After the crushing and new "A Song Is A Weapon," the band played exclusively from the back catalog. Running through "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead", "One More Night" and "Calendar Girl", the last song before Milan left the stage, it was a memory of a time when Milan had as much skin in the game as Campbell, where they shared catharsis like thirsty elementary schoolers perched around a water fountain. And then it was Torq's turn. The North bears much more of his voice and influence than the band's previous work, and no one seems to entirely mind, least of all Milan. Campbell is, after all, fantastically talented and writes the songs his fans want to hear and remember hearing. He writes the music of the selves they want to remember being. This risks naming the elephant in the room, what we all came to see, a decade in the mirror with the truly ugly bits edited out and all the pain recast as moral victories. Milan headed to the back of the room and Campbell closed the show with perfect pathos; it was a charming man playing, "This Charming Man," a song of the story-keeper's remembered self.