Buzzing into the New Year

So, a week after the Holiday show at the Cooperage, 2018 closed out for me (before I got sick) there as well with a handful of acts that have had a high level of generally justified buzz. I'd been wanting to see Whips for quite sometime, and as headlining act, they're what got me off the couch and into the Cooperage, but I wasn't expecting the full night of surprises.

I got there just in time for most of the set of openers Devil's Teeth, and I'm sad I didn't get the whole set. The half hour I did catch blew me away -- for sure, there is no shortage of excellent, wicked surf in this town. They reference surf, garage, punk and "the spaghetti west" in their bio and that's fairly accurate. They're not completely instrumental -- they do sing on a fair number of songs, but that "spaghetti west" description really captures the movie soundtrack quality of their music. It's not just a spaghetti western, though -- it's an action movie chock full of romance and intrigue. They're all over the stage, and Caleb Westphal's sax is the icing on this cake that makes them stand out. Not that the rest of the band aren't sharp players (you have to be to pull off this genre) but the sax takes them off the beach and into a seedy noir nightclub where the danger lurks. Of course, since they're working one of my favorite genres of music well, they're on my "don't miss them" list.

So the next group (I'd hardly call them a band, they were more like a "collective") was an outfit called New Age Narcissism and while the old cliche about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts could be true, this was a group of people whose individual talents could probably stand on their own quite successfully. That makes New Age Narcissism a potential supergroup: every contributor to this thing has the potential to go off and hold a room by themselves, but for some unexplained reason none of them are nationally famous yet. The talent is there. They appear to be held together by Kiran Vedula ("Q the Sun") on keyboards/synths, and Christopher DeAngelo Gilbert, who is a professional dancer in another life. The two of them were the constants on stage, while various other performers drifted on and off.
The first of the adds was a woman called Siren. If you went to her FB page or looked her up on the web, you'd get hits of her singing beautifully folky tunes in some coffeehouse: soulfully delivering lovely songs. And if you expected that on the stage this particular evening, you'd be surprised, because she strutted on stage and belted out a powerful bitter song about hating a lost love with more authority than the Alanis Morrisette T-Shirt she was wearing. She admitted she was nervous, but once she opened up her pipes either she hid her nervousness well or it just went away. But that was it. Let's hear more from Siren! 

She was followed by what for me was highlight of the night, Lex Allen. I'd seen him a week before at a Christmas show, and even his short time on stage there was bursting with so much talent and charisma I knew I had to see him again, even if he was not working my favorite genre. (I'm not a big smooth R&B person.) But he's so good he transcends whatever genre he's working and he crossed plenty during his set of less than a half dozen songs --he name drops Janelle Monae as an influence in his bio, and anybody who does that gets points in my book (and he lives up to the comparison in his breadth of work.) First of all, you can't stop looking at him in his fabulous skintight sequined mini dress that showed off his great legs shoved into shiny black booties. I wouldn't call him a cross-dresser or a drag queen -- he wasn't wearing makeup or trying to hide his masculinity. He simply is a man who looks sensational in a dress (think: David Bowie on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World). He opens his set with some R&B (and wins me over with it), opens up with some classic soul, and the next thing you know, he's kicking out an amal nitrate fueled grind with the jubilant chorus "I STRUCK GOLD!" (yes, he had the crowd singing along) with a groove reminiscent of Lady Gaga's first couple of hits. He poses and preens and sticks out his booty, while assuring us during "Bitch U Fabulous" that we are too.   He constantly flirts with a crowd that already loves him, and he writes and performs catchyass songs that should be hits. In the meantime, Q the Sun and Gilbert are holding down the fort and making it look easy. I'm downloading his latest album now (oh, and he covers Pete Townshend.)

The show didn't stop there. A couple of hip hop guys (and your white girl blogger from the suburbs could be misinterpreting the genre) --  Webster X and Lorde Fredd33 took the stage and got Gilbert out from behind the drums but the beats went on. This is the part where I need to say something about how hard it must be to mix the sound in that room with its high ceilings and brick walls, with sounds bouncing off like crazy. Because the thing with rappers is that the words are important, and I want to be able to hear them, and this wasn't a great environment to do that. Plus, Webster X sings his raps -- he puts melody behind his words but his phrasing is pure rap. Like Lex Allen, he has a soulful timbre to his vox, and it serves his delivery well: he's emotional and pointedly clear about what drives that emotion.  I wish I could have heard his words better. Lorde Fredd33 suffered a similar fate: he was riveting and engaging, and also could sing many of his raps, but I felt like I was missing something important as I struggled to hear the words. I went online to check out his stuff and yes, this guy has a lot to say that needs to be heard. He's got a more vicious vibe (he describes himself as a "stage stomping shit talker") but it isn't all doom and gloom -- both Webster X and Lorde Fredd33 were also fun, furiously fun and again, Q the Sun and Gilbert are still the constant holding it all together.

The headliners, Whips, are a band I've been wanting to see for a while (I missed them at Locust Street this year) and it's not like they need more buzz. They're fronted by Ashley Smith, a commanding presence of a woman (even during sound check she checked her microphone with just a couple of words and the entire room turned around at attention) with one of those  voices where every word seems to bubble up from deep inside her lungs. If she had been a guy, I'd call this band pub rock, but that implies a working class frontman singing about his workaday, and that's not what she is. But here's the thing. Maybe it was because it was billed as a New Year's Show, so they wanted to keep the tempo up for the whole set, but after about five songs I kind of got the point -- strong woman, strong melody, strong chorus, stable beats. I'd commented to a friend that they needed to have some more dynamic variety and rhythmic range.
He replied that I should give them another chance: their recordings show that kind of thing I'm looking for from them. I went home and googled them up and my friend was right: their latest album shows a band with songwriting flair and some good (often sinister) melodies and tempo changes and a thematic variety that I thought was missing from this live performance. This record actually has some psychobilly to it! I probably would have enjoyed the performance more had I listened to this record beforehand. This crowd would have accepted a downtempo moment or two from them -- about 80% of the audience clearly already knew their songs and Smith could have probably read the dictionary to them and gotten the love -- she's got the voice and the stage presence to do so. And so they're a band I need to see again, in a different environment, to really appreciate them-- I bet they'd be great on a bill with the Grovelers.  The show that night was for the fans -- and they delivered a set for them.


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