When I first added this show to my calendar, there were no openers. Over time, raunchy New Orleans bounce artist Nicky Da B, and local psychedelic rockers The Conquerors would be tapped to support the cloying indie pop of Omaha's Tilly and the Wall. I assumed this bill was the result of the Jackpot, once again, booking shows while high. Curiously, as the night unfolded, intentions were revealed.
Just after 9pm the six members of The Conquerors took the stage under cover of darkness. If not for a single green light shining up at frontman Rory Cameron, I wouldn't have had a clue where the otherworldly, reverb-drenched vocals were coming from. Identification was further complicated by the band's predilection for shaggy hair, ankle boots, and '70s moustaches, leaving Cameron and his fellow guitarist Vince Lawhon somewhat interchangeable in the dim light. However, even the light of day wouldn't have helped me pinpoint the exact instrument responsible for each element of the band's thick psychedelic stoner rock. I could pick out Christian O'Reilly's bass, as it set the groove before it was embellished by the guitarists, keyboardist Shawn Foley, and the percussive duo of Jim Button and Jake Cardwell – the later focused on various handheld percussion and dried gourds used as shakers. Between songs, Cameron spoke to the audience, but the trippy cocktail of vocal reverb and noodling bandmates left his words completely unintelligible. If I were to have a guess, I imagine that he said "Here is a Jimi Hendrix song played in the style of Bardo Pond." While the shrill edge of the former was not present, nor the sculpted sounds of the latter, the band carved out the middle ground quite well, impressing the curiously large audience with its 35-minute set.
White lights were brought up while The Conquerors cleared the stage, and DJ Rusty Lazer set up his laptop and sound gear. Soon Lazer would use this laptop to trigger rich backing tracks (often with a base vocal already in the mix) for Nicky Da B to rap over. Although Lazer really only swayed and smiled while the track played, he could have stood on his head and still no would have noticed – the real show was at the front of the stage.
Nicky Da B (nee Nicholas Bennett) is part of the New Orleans bounce scene. Bounce (as most of the audience learned that night) is a hypersexual localised hip hop subgenre built on call and response, and tightly integrated with the "dance" of the same name. Without the two travelling dancers, in fact, bounce would have made no sense at all. Even with the dancers, the audience was split into two categories – those that were ready to move, and those that were confused and terrified. The members of Tilly and the Wall fell squarely into the first camp, and, in fact, had brought the act on tour with them. This odd pairing wasn't the fault of The Jackpot – it was the intention of the headliner.
Throughout the act's thirty-five minute set, Nicky paced the stage, spitting out quick-fire, dancehall-styled raps over the thumping beats. Just as often, he called to the audience and his dancers to make their asses clap, which is the only "step" involved in the bounce dance repertoire. Luckily there are a million ways to demonstrate this feat: standing, bent over with hands on a table, hands on a wall, hands on the floor, feet on the wall, ankles on someone's shoulders, and, yes, even standing on your head. There was seemingly no position in which the dancers could not make their asses bounce. Several songs in, Nicky invited the audience onto stage, at which point most of Tilly and the Wall and a handful of other patrons began their fun, yet often-comical, journey to ass-clap stardom.
Just as the show reached a fleshy frenzy, Lazer lost power and the show ground to a halt. Nicky attempted to flow a cappella, but despite a (hand-)clapping audience keeping the beat, he just could not maintain the energy. By the time the power was restored, the energy level had fallen to zero, and didn't reach its peak again until he taught the audience a call and response lyric that included the subtle couplet "I'm not a freak, I'm just a little nasty. Let me ride yo face, all night if you'll let me." If the shouted returns, the waving arms, and the waggling moneymakers were any indication, the majority of the audience was happy to be along for the ride – all night if he'd let them.
It was just after 11:00 when a seven-piece version of Tilly and the Wall engulfed the stage, launching into the stomping "Love Riot" from its latest album (Heavy Mood, Team Love, 2012). While the band has flirted with any number of stylistic indie subgenres, it was obvious that this recently reactivated version of the band had come to dance, and the Jackpot's primed, near-capacity audience was happy to oblige.
From the moment it took the stage, the band was a swirling ball of energy, synchronised dance moves, handclaps, and tap dancing (not only by designated tapper Jamie Pressnall, but also by vocalists Kianna Alarid and Nelly Jenkins as well). Just as importantly, both the audience and Nicky Da B's crew joined in at every opportunity, creating a hundred hand-clapping tap dancers all around the stage. While integral to the band's sound, keyboardist Nick White and guitarist/vocalist Derek Pressnall shrunk to the edges of the stage, allowing the women to host the party. Early in the band's career, percussion was limited to Jamie Pressnall's tap dancing, but the band's evolving sound now requires big punches, necessitating the arrival of drummer Craig D and bassist Nik Fackler. This is how we've arrived at a seven-piece band.
Tilly's thirteen-song setlist favoured its new album, but also included tracks from throughout its career – even going back to include the tap-dominated "Nights of the Living Dead" from the band's 2004 debut. It was songs like this, with coed gang vocals and plenty of imprecise stomping, that ruled the night, so I was a bit surprised at the strong and clear pop vocal performance from Alarid. With her voice, her current blonder-than-blonde hair, and on-stage swagger, she might consider a second career alongside the Top 40 pop princesses. The combination of her full-voiced push, a rare growling electric guitar, and (again) stomping percussion sold the band's final number, the rocking "Pot Kettle Black."
After a quick break, the band returned for an two-song encore, first pairing only Derek Pressnall with Jenkins for a slow number, then recalling the entire band for one final blow out. As the instruments faded, the still-effervescent band proclaimed Lawrence to be the best show of the tour (take that, St. Louis!), and continued to effusively praise the crowd.
Afterwards I talked to Jenkins, who was thrilled to have played to a packed house on a Sunday night, and amazed to have such a crowd of dancers and revellers. As someone who has witnessed his fair share of Jackpot duds, I assured her that this ebullient audience was unique to Tilly and the Wall fans (who call themselves "tillyfreaks"), and bolstered by the band's prescient choice of touring partners. Lawrence doesn't normally party like this on a Sunday night, but Tilly and the Wall cunningly brought out the city's best.