Cold War Kids return to Chicago at The Metro

Low, moody lighting engulfed The Metro Saturday night when Cold War Kids lead singer Nathan Willett’s bluesy voice cut through the screams of the crowd asking, “Wonder why you don’t like April.”

Backed with minimal drums and guitar, it was the opening line to the song “Dear Miss Lonleyhearts,” from the eponymous album release April. It acted as a very cool opening for the band’s visit to Chicago on their tour for the new album.

If the set started a little too mellow for fans, “Mexican Dogs” followed with Willett and bandmates Matt Maust and Dann Gallucci moving in dizzying circles around the intimate stage.

It was a smart move after 2011’s flop “Mine Is Yours.” The over-thought, over-produced album – thanks to Jacquire King (think Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” his latest commercial success) – was a step in the completely wrong direction from the band’s bluesy, unkempt rock roots to stadium bro rock, illustrated best in “Royal Blue,” inciting the bro rock bounce across the crowd.

It may not have been the album’s fault, but the band had a Chicago venue size downgrade from its last visit in March 2011 to The Riviera Theatre. There’s no denying The Metro is cooler, but if it’s not a conscious decision to play the legendary venue after playing larger ones, it might be a bad sign.

Luckily, “Dear Miss Lonleyhearts” returns to the older sound, not all the way to the piano banging of 2006’s “Robbers & Cowards,” but it’s closer. The set was heavy in new tracks, from the neat and upbeat piano riffs of the single “Miracle Mile” followed shortly after by “Jailbirds,” a nice agreement between the band’s earlier work and newer.

Regardless of song choice, Willett is one of the most interesting performers to watch. His voice can range from powerful crooning steeped in soul, blues and rock to an impressive falsetto. Then watch his hands – even with a guitar strapped around his neck, his hands and fingers illustrate almost every note. It’s like he’s playing the piano even when he’s standing center stage.

Now on their fourth studio album, mixing older songs into a set becomes increasingly difficult. Before “Rubidoux” and “Hang Me Up To Dry,” Willett let the crowds know, “this is an old one,” which was almost jarring if you’re still listening to “Robbers and Cowards” like it was released yesterday.

“Hang Me Up To Dry” is still arguably the band’s most well known song, and the crowd reacted accordingly. Willett continues to create a spectacle, moving like the Hunchback of Notre Dame around the stage during musical breaks and faux-piano playing while at the mic.

As the set was coming to a close, the band included two more off of “Mine Is Yours.” “Cold Toes On The Cold Floor,” the only gem of that album was filled with all of the strength of Willett’s voice and the cool bass line that was somehow left under-produced. Followed by another new track “Fear & Trembling,” a similar pulsing bass line and matching drumbeat was solid behind Willett’s falsetto.

“Louder Than Ever” was the last to be played off “Mine Is Yours,” played at a noticeably faster tempo during the first verse. One might be hopeful it was to please the crowd by playing the track but doing it quicker to get it over with as fast as possible, but the tempo was back on track after the first chorus, unfortunately.

The set preencore closed with “Hospital Beds,” arguably the band’s most beautiful song. Willett takes such a free approach to his piano playing it makes the live experience so much more moving.

“We Used To Vacation” was clearly missing from the set, but it was the opening for the encore. Willett continued his free piano playing, breaking it down even more, almost acting out the alcoholic protagonist of the track. The set closed out with 2012’s single “Minimum Day” followed by “Something Is Not Right With Me,” a rocking, upbeat end to the show.

While it was a solid sold out performance to an eager, sold out crowd, the fact that “Saint Johns” didn’t close the show was a travesty. A long-running tradition for the band on past tours, Willett with his prop glass of wine pulls out more soul than you thought possible. Crowds sing along to the breakdown of a chorus. The show ends.

On the tour for a fourth studio album, some things must unfortunately get cut.