During the fabled alt-rock heyday that was the mid-to-late 90s, where bands were still at the mercy and financial dues of  record labels – indeed, back when labels still held all the keys to the kingdom to begin with – many guitar bands could ensure a steady legacy from a handful of chords, a knack for putting them to some choice words – and a spirited live show.

Nada Surf are just such a band.

While their first visit to Australia in over a decade might smack – to the non-fan – of the wave of 90s nostalgia acts currently flocking to our shores (aren’t they the guys that did that ‘Popular’ song?), this particular American group’s long-awaited return is not based on the familiarity of a few recognisable hits, but a hearty, seven-album strong back catalogue.

Following a promising set from openers Lurch & Chief and the rough-yet-earnest The Golden Hearted, who provided a pop rock polish reminiscent of Jimmy Eat World, if lacking the charisma; Nada Surf casually loped on stage to a building amble of applause.

Highly affable frontman, Matthew Caws, ignored the ceremony of their notable absence and led the band straight into the opening cut from their latest studio effort, this year’s The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy.

Clearly warming up, ‘Clear Eye Bright Minded’ doesn’t sound as clean or accurate as its studio counterpart, and as fellow album cut ‘Waiting For Something’ follows – it’s chorus rings a little too close to home, the sparkle not quite hitting yet.

Caws, dressed in smart casual, looking a little older under the bright lighting and not unlike a doughy version of Arrested Development‘s Jason Bateman, is not oblivious to the fact that they’re moving up the gears.

There’s still the boyish yearning to the tone of his vocals, even as they occasionally crack in the upper register they often dwell, to which the frontman jokes some whiskey would “smooth that shit out” – before having said beverage promptly thrusted into his hands by a punter. He’s less surprised that his request is fulfilled than at the prospect of being put to the task to drink it.

It also speaks to the crowd’s enthusiasm tonight, hanging on to every sing-a-long moment afforded them – especially in the coda to a restless version of ‘Weightless’ and encouragement to aid in the “ridiculously high parts” of ‘Jules And Jim’. At one point, their enthusiastic whooping prompting Caws to remark “you sound like Angry Birds.”

Come the jangle of ‘Whose Authority?’ and they’re well into the swing of things, as Ira Elliot rocks his head and scrunches his face in enjoyment at pounding the kit while Daniel Lorca’s natted, dreadlocked visage remains in a comfortable swing at side of stage. Flanking stage left is ex-Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard, offering some necessary guitar oomph to the band’s alt-rock architecture.

Being their first show down under “since 2000 and something” by the band’s vague reckoning, the set is bejewelled with crowd favourites from across the band’s sixteen year history. With cracking versions of 1998’s ‘Amateur’ and ’80 Windows’ keeping the diehards satisfied, while rousing versions of ‘Do It Again’ and ‘Hi-Speed Soul’ become definite set highlights, crackling with energy.

Playing to their Australian fanbase, Caws recounts how, as a youth, he scored a roadie gig for a Stoneage Romeos-era Hoodoo Gurus; before truly winning the crowd over with the band’s spirited rendition of The Go-Betweens classic, ‘Love Goes On’ (taken from the band’s 2010 covers record, If I Had A Hi-Fi).

By this point, not even the duller ‘When I Was Young’ and ‘Looking Through’ can mar the tail-end of their set, while the venue positively laps up the life-affirming urgency to “look alive” for ‘See These Bones’.

The encore’s ruminative ‘love’ double shot (re: ‘Inside Of Love’/’Always Love’) is also well-received, while the call-and-response of ‘Fuck it!’ on the cranking ‘Blankest Year’, along with an extended, barreling ending – closes the night on a high.

Only that wasn’t even the best part. Those who managed to wait out the usual ‘lights up, crowd leaves’ evacuation routine were treated to an impromptu acoustic set from Matthew Caws, who slunk out of the green room to lead the crowded faithful in heart-warmingly casual takes on ‘Blizzard of ’77’, ‘Concrete Bed’ and a half-forgotten version of ‘Beautiful Beat.’

Many handshakes, awkward photos, and signatures followed, but not without the lasting impression of the unique experience that Nada Surf provided post-set.

Something that was never expected beyond the ticket price, but simply the kind of touching gesture that demonstrates a band who have earned their stripes yet are just as appreciative of their long-term fans as they are of their musical heroes.

Still ‘Popular’? Definitely, and they don’t even need to mention it.

– Al Newstead