There wasn't a single reason that I should have been at The Rino that night — at least not one good one. There were reasons though. Lots of them. All tiny, most specious, but there were enough of them that I jumped into Kate's Prius as dusk was settling in, opened the sunroof optimistically, turned up the new Paul Collins album, and committed myself to my folly.
The night opened with Pink Royal. This is a band I'd never heard of. Is that a reason to go to show. Feels like it should be. Then again, feels like supporting bands you already like is a reason too. I'm beginning to understand why I'm at so many shows. Anyway, it was really that second reason that brought twenty twenty-something fans to the front of the stage, to raise their hands as crescendos hit, and to sing along throughout the band's set. The local five-piece is fronted by Vik Govindarajan who either stood anchored behind his large twinkling Yamaha piano, or stood just as idle with some Roland keytar-like devices slung over his shoulder. His voice is clean. He's a pop singer, and that's... okay. Backing Govindarajan was a pair of guitarists, each offering vocals (one occasionally carrying the lead), a bassist, and a drummer. The drummer was animated — no drummer with a rototom is ever languid. The bassist occasionally thrashed his head to and fro, but his feet never moved. For the entirety of the band's long 45-minute set I searched for reference points that made sense to me, but in the end, I was only teasing the edges. At the core the band is lively, danceable, fun, thoroughly perishable pop. Unfortunately, the curious moments that drew me closer were more than zeroed out by a slick sheen that I can only assume travels all the way to the band's core. This is a Buzz band, built by, and for, commercial radio, and ultimately, just not for me.
It's true that Pink Royal exist in a musical world that I purposely lack vocabulary for, however describing Madison's Seasaw presents a different challenge, as the duo of Meg Golz (keyboards and percussion) and Eve Wilczewski (guitar) speak their own musical language. It's one built on simple power chords, simpler drumming, lovely vocal harmonies, boundless enthusiasm, and oodles of quirk. While those roads are well travelled by DIY bands like Moldy Peaches and so many others, Seasaw's twee never feels precious, nor does it celebrate in amateurism. Instead, the band's compositions are full — full of strummed guitar (or autoharp), full of dampened snare (or electronic drum pad), full of melodies struck on small Korg synthesizer, and filled by two friends, often facing each other, their smiles louder than their voices, harmonizing. Maybe a good touch point is Omaha's Tilly and the Wall, just remember to oUqpSUlFf0U Jamie Pressnall's tap-danced percussion with a preponderance of hand claps and a complex "solo" that I can only describe as doubles competitive high fiving. Typically, I would meet that much playfulness on stage with suspicion and raised eyebrows, but earlier in the night I happened to catch the giggling duo not only playing ping pong, but also adding an impromptu rule that each player must twirl after every return. It's certain that Seasaw are having a marvelous time, and with the release of the band's new album, audiences have one more reason to join them.
The evening ended with a set from local's Other Americans. Although long-rumored to exist, the band made its abrupt debut several months back with a series of live shows, professional videos, and a fully formed, self-released, five-song EP. It was daunting trying to keep up with how fast the quartet was suddenly moving. I am just now catching up.
Other Americans' musical CV could span paragraphs that would only interest the most pedantic readers. Instead, I'll place my focus on where the two dozen audience members placed theirs — firmly on frontwoman Julie Berndsen. While in past bands Berndsen was a cloying kitten, in this band she's become a tiger. Never missing a note, she danced and prowled about the stage, eyeing the audience, inspiring blushes from the young boys and applause from everyone. Brandon Phillips plays the sideman in this band, still on guitar, but armed with an arsenal of pedals and effects, where he's able to drop in accent lines or melodic leads rather than sawing away at his typical breakneck pace. Drummer Adam Phillips still hits his kit hard, but his percussion was matched by backing tracks that not only added thudding percussion, but plenty of synthesized propellant as well. On bass was not third brother Zach Phillips, but instead Kansas City's premiere utility musician Michelle Bacon. Bacon's cadence was focused and steady, her demeanor the same. She's always a rock.
Although Other Americans' music isn't far from the polished pop of openers Pink Royal, it also offers appealing breadcrumbs that lead back to the assertive growl of '90s acts like Garbage, and the limitless new-wave bounce of Blondie. The latter influence was turned up to eleven during the disco-powered "Curtis" from the band's new self-titled EP. At that song's conclusion, Adam Phillips scanned the audience, wondering if the tune was perhaps a road-too-far, but quickly blurted out "Holy shit, they liked it!" when finding nothing but appreciation. And it's true. Audiences do like Other Americans. It's fun, it's direct, it's real, and that's three good reasons to see the band live.