Live Review: Tegan and Sara

The twins kept it real at Oakland's Fox Theater

When the lights go down between songs at a Tegan and Sara show, you never know what will happen next.

They might reveal Tegan tuning an acoustic guitar, or spotlight Sara as she launches into an extended monologue about the recent spate of people dressing as clowns and lurking around in wooded areas. Pink strobes might even pulse in time to the warped, harmonic vocals that lead into “White Knuckles,” one of the standout tracks on Tegan and Sara’s latest album, Love You to Death. Whatever the lights reveal, one thing remains a constant: Tegan and Sara are not actors when they’re on stage; they’re just themselves.

The duo has had to deal with a lot of labels in their 17 year career:  They’re identical twin sisters and they’re both openly gay; and they are indie-rock darlings one minute and full-fledged pop personas the next.  But though the perceptions around Tegan and Sara may have changed — 2013 saw them earn their first #1 record on the U.S. Alternative charts with  Heartthrob, and they also performed at the Academy Awards — but their drive remains the same.

On Saturday night at the Fox Theater in Oakland, Tegan and Sara were grateful and fierce. They repeatedly thanked the sold-out crowd for their support, and even good-naturedly responded to some especially random outbursts. Kicking off the show, Tegan told the audience that there were three things she and her sister want when they take the stage.

“We want to have fun, we want you to have fun, and we want to look good.”

All three goals were easily accomplished. The almost Vaudevillian way in Tegan and Sara ribbed each other throughout the show was endearing and hysterical. At one point Tegan told Sara she had something in her teeth, while later in the show Sara was exasperation incarnate when Tegan told a long and winding tale about their mother accidentally tampering with her apartment’s security system while she was away. The love shined through as they playfully bickered, punctuated in each case with tracks from the duo’s substantial and nearly two decade career.

Aside from two small sample pads that the two would often stand behind, there were only three tracks that saw either member actually pick up an instrument (in each case it was Tegan on guitar). For longtime fans, this was a marked departure from the Tegan and Sara shows of yore, but the duo has moved into the arena of synth-soaked ballads with their last two records, and the focus is now squarely on their voice. Switching off leads, the two took turns owning the stage for new numbers like “BWU” and “Hang on the Night,” and old favorites like “The Con” and “Walking with a Ghost.”

As wonderful as the music was, watching Tegan and Sara interact with their fans was equally entertaining. Approaching a fan near the front who was yelling a request for “Superstar” and holding a sign asking for a selfie, Tegan turned to the fan’s significant other and asked if she found her partner bossy. While describing how she often cried while playing the song “I Was a Fool” owing to a private loss she and her sister had suffered, Tegan connected with another fan who’d recently received bad news about her father. At that moment, someone else threw a bra onto the stage.

“Well that’s life,” Tegan said, not missing a beat. “Sometimes you’re talking about serious stuff and someone throws a bra at you.”

Before finishing their regular set with “Closer” – unquestionably their biggest single to date – Sara implored the audience to vote. Coming from many artists, it might have felt like lip service, an easy way to rally the crowd without getting overtly political. But Tegan and Sara don’t do the easy way. Sara spoke passionately about how even their younger fans or those without citizenship still had a voice that needed to be heard. It was authentic; an exceedingly genuine appeal from two artists who may be complex, but have never strayed from their true selves.

It’s why Tegan and Sara still close all of their encores with “Living Room” from 2002’s If It Was You. They love the song, and so do their fans, so why change it?

Pop music has often thrived as a distraction, a cure for the common life. For Tegan and Sara, it’s simply fresh ingredients from which to reimagine cherished recipes. Forget the labels. Close your eyes if it helps. All you need to know about Tegan and Sara is that they keep it real.

Back in Your Head
I Couldn’t Be Your Friend
How Come You Don’t Me
Drove Me Wild
Goodbye, Goodbye
That Girl
Faint of Heart
White Knuckles
Stop Desire
I Was a Fool
Shock to Your System
Hang on the Night
The Con
Call It Off
I Was Married
Walking with a Ghost
Living Room

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