While my Twitter feed was blowing up with snarky asides and observations about the vice presidential debate, the Jackpot Saloon in Lawrence was a starkly different affair. At 9:30 three patrons sat at the bar drinking quietly, idly watching Arizona State rout Colorado on the televisions. The sound engineer and the opening act made last minute adjustments to their equipment, while the doorman sat outside smoking. I paused when I entered, expecting someone to check my ID, but no one came. Once I realised the situation, I poured myself a cup of water from the cooler on the bar, sat down on a padded bench, and made myself at home. When the doorman later circled the room to check IDs and collect money, he hinted that the show wouldn't start at 10:00. Indeed, it was just after 10:30 when the opening act climbed onto the stage.
Ewert and the Two Dragons is an Estonian indie rock quartet led by vocalist/keyboardist Ewert Sundja. This first tour of the United States was a humbling experience for the band. At home the band receives national press coverage, throughout Europe the band headlines large venues, and at the Jackpot on a Thursday night, they played an opening set to an audience of seven – most of which whom remained seated. But Sundja is an experienced performer, and he never let the small turnout effect the band's set. He remained upbeat, engaged, and he focused his energy on creating a pitch-perfect intimate performance. It was a pleasure to witness.
Sundja's music is quiet, with his piano and vocals forming its core. His voice is high, with a bit of a soulful gravel that hints to Radiohead's Thom Yorke. There are elements of folk in the band's music, particularly in the bouncing bass work of Ivo Etti. Guitarist Erki Parnoja occasionally bent this way as well, though his primary focus was pure pop, that he smoothed out with a bevy of effects pedals. Somewhat contradictorily, Kristjan Kallas provided busy percussion, heavy on the crashing cymbals and clanking rim shots. In addition to their sweetening backing vocals, Etti and Parnoja also provided acoustic guitar on "Sailor Man" – a track that from the band's most recent album (Good Man Down, I Love You Records, 2011) that would certainly appeal to fans of Fleet Foxes.
After a generous 50-minute set, the band thanked the audience, walked to the front of the stage for a big bow with arms linked, then stepped back to begin packing up its gear. While I waited to talk to the Sundja, someone travelling with the band was sure to tell me that Ewert and the Two Dragons has just signed a US deal with Warner Brothers, and how lucky I was to see the band at such a small venue. Take that information however you like.
The stage was quickly turned around for Cleveland's The Lighthouse and the Whaler (TLATW). As was the case earlier in the evening, the band faced a small audience. Smaller, in fact, as the majority of the audience that had just watched Ewert and the Two Dragons were outside smoking when TLATW began its set. From a crowded stage in an empty room, frontman Michael LoPresti smiled at those who remained (one very effusive fan, her less eager friend, and yours truly), then stepped the band slowly into the first song. Soon the rest of the audience returned – first three, then five, and ultimately seven fans – but there is no discounting the small turnout's effect on the evening for the bands, the fans, and the staff at the club.
While largely the vision of vocalist/guitar Michael LoPresti (particularly since co-founder Aaron Smith left the band in September), TLATW is currently touring as a five piece, easing what was once frail indie pop toward expansive chamber pop. Throughout the course of the band's short thirty-minute set, every member of the band switched instruments at least once. Percussionists Matthew LoPresti and Steve Diaz each took their turn behind the drum kit, while spending the rest of their time on keyboards, bells, or bass as the song required. While Mark Poro's focus was mandolin, he occasionally shifted to another keyboard which he shared with Lisa Kim – that is, when she wasn't playing violin. Even Michael LoPresti found his way to that keyboard on occasion. Bolstered by thoughtful arrangements, this swirling mass of multi-instrumentalists accomplished the difficult task of playing full compositions that still remained nimble and light.
The band closed with "Pioneers" from its most recent album (This Is An Adventure, "Self Released", 2012). The song is a modern indie pop gem built from all of the band's best qualities: ringing bells, steady guitar, surging keyboards, climbing mandolin leads, and a buoyant rhythm section. The vocals are sung with a hint of urgency, but they're never pushed nor strained. "Pioneers" simply feels like a pop song should, and yet remains complex enough to intrigue. That balance doesn't come easy.
While fans of pop as twee as Allo Darlin', as bold as Los Campesinos!, or as rich as Arcade Fire would definitely be at home with TLATW, those zealots were nowhere to be found. Sadly, the band didn't even have the luxury of a local act to bring in unwitting fans that it might win over. Instead the band finished its set standing in front of seven fans, then packed up for tomorrow's show in the battleground state of Iowa. I hope they fare better there.