In the years since Explosions in the Sky drummer Chris Hrasky posted a flyer at the University of Texas at Austin that read, “Wanted: Sad, Triumphant Rock Band,” the instrumental post-rock quartet have exercised great restraint in how they approach their hometown. They’ve ascended from playing early sets as an opener at dingy rock clubs in Austin to headlining two shows in one day at the city’s regal Paramount Theatre. But now that they’re big, hometown shows come rarely, and the band constantly tests the waters in terms of what kind of venue they choose to fill—Stubb’s, ACL Live, a late-night set at Auditorium Shores during a festival like Fun Fun Fun Fest or SXSW. The music, described as “majestic” and “cinematic” and “epic,” translates seamlessly to a live setting.
The band skipped Austin on its current tour, though—instead, to kick off a 21-date string of shows that’ll mostly see them playing theaters across the South and East Coast, they opted to hit San Antonio instead. Explosions in the Sky don’t have a ton of history in the Alamo City. They’ve played a handful of shows there—they opened for Nine Inch Nails at the AT&T Center in 2013, and headlined a night at the venue that’s now the Alamo City Music Hall the year before—but the band’s relationship to San Antonio is a lot less defined than its relationship to Austin.
“Hello, San Antone,” guitarist Munaf Rayani said as the band introduced itself on the stage of the warehouse-style rock club Paper Tiger on the city’s blossoming St. Mary’s strip. “We should be seeing more of each other, this is nice.” It was nice—the venue sold out well in advance, and the 1,000-capacity space was packed tight for the band, full of adoring fans. (After the first song, a woman near the front shouted “I love you!”, drawing cheers from the rest of the crowd.)
What followed was a looser, more raw set than what you might find in Explosion in the Sky’s Austin shows. At a venue like the Paramount Theatre, there’s a distance between band and audience—a literal distance, in the form of an orchestra pit, and an emotional distance, as everybody is seated. But at a club like Paper Tiger, there’s a visceral element to the band’s music. Seated in an austere setting, the band’s music is about the epic swirls of sound. From your seat, you can close your eyes and imagine your favorite scenes from Friday Night Lights or Lone Survivor, both of which the band contributed music to, playing out. Put them onstage in a club, though, and they feel more like a proper rock band. The guitars sound more like guitars and less like the way it feels to watch the Permian Panthers make the playoffs.
That change of pace is something that the band seemed to value, filling that stage with their own bodies in motion as they built their sound to something that was loud, aggressive, and vibrant.
There’s a recent history of artists and musicians who’ve been boxed out of Austin for whatever reason (usually, but not always, the cost of living) packing up for San Antonio. That kind of played out in miniature on Thursday night at Paper Tiger, and San Antonio felt like the right place for a fresh experience from a famously Austin band. Explosions in the Sky evolved from a tiny indie rock band opening for …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead at the old Emo’s on Red River to an international headliner all in the Live Music Capital of the World. In San Antonio, though, where the history is less thick, that isn’t a factor—they can just be a rock band, and a great one, to a crowd that packed a club to see them play.