(Note: I had a hell of a time trying to find out the personnel in each band. After trying for days to get the information from publicists and the like, I gave up and just posted my account like this. If you have names to fill in the blanks, please get in touch.)
Two nights ago I slipped into the Middle East to see the Blood Brothers. Although I got in line nearly an hour before the doors opened, it seems I got in line with the express purpose of getting in line the show was sold out. Having made the mistake once, I slipped into the Middle Easts ticket office the next day and purchased my advance ticket to The Rapture.
Nasty service from a neglectful waitress at Pizzeria Unos in Allston left me running for my 8:50 bus at Union Square. It turns out I had no reason to worry, but I do like to sweat the small stuff. By 9:10 I was downstairs at The Middle East, sitting on the stage. While wedged in tightly between two monitors and sitting on a bundle of sound cables wasnt exactly comfy, I was at least sitting. At 10pm, I looked up from my scrabble game and noticed I wasnt alone the area in front of the stage was not only occupied, but nearly filled. These denizens cheered, protested, and grunted when the opener didnt take the stage at the advertised start time. Are they old and have bed times, do they have busses to catch, or are they just really impatient? I need to understand The Middle East crowd a little better.
Under cries of protest, and merely minutes late, NYCs Out Hud walked on stage and, like an elementary school music class, found an instrument to stand by. Although players shifted stations fluidly throughout the set, the band is loosely comprised of a programmer, two keyboardists, a bass player, and a cellist. Often, the bass and keyboards would shift between two players; occasionally instruments would be abandoned for full-time vocal duties, and, for at least one song, the cello was replaced with a Les Paul that looked a lot like Slashs [not that I ever touched his Les Paul at the Deer Creek Amphitheatre in 1991 when Guns N Roses toured with Skid Row].
True to his job description, programmer Justin Vandervolgen seemed to be the one in control of the band. His beats set the tone and the others dutifully followed his lead. Once he established a rhythm, live and sequenced synths weaved their way into danceable structures in a heady yet entirely rump-shakable manner. Simple, yet terribly effective, bass lines added funk in a way more reminiscent of hip-hop than current electronic dance music. Although the self-appointed frontman, synth player, and dancer extraordinaire espoused the bands credo (telling the audience that the band was all about getting their dance rock on), there were moments that seemed more chill and cerebral than simply pounding. As one might expect, a bowed cello is often entrancing and engaging, but seldom slammin.
The keyboardist/bassists vocals were usually spoken with a slight rhythm to them one couldnt call it rap, but the groundwork was there. Like the synths, they seemed to weave their way into the middle of the mix; unfortunately, it was to little effect. Additional vocals from cellist Molly Schinct were even less noticeable. Schinct is a tiny gal with a high tiny voice that refused to blend as backing vocals need to do. When vocal duties were shared between the grrls, the balance seemed off and each vocal line was tentative. I wondered if it could be nerves, novices, a desired effect, or if the band was deluding itself concerning the results of the endeavor.
Though the band worked to energize the crowd, their minor successes there were probably overshadowed by beats engaging enough to listen to when not on the dance floor. In this way, the band reminded me of a more active Her Space Holiday, and less of the organic dance grooves of the evenings headliner.
At 11pm, the stage was set for The Rapture. At 11:30 the band walked onto said stage. For that expectative half-hour, the audience squirmed, sweated, and inhaled cigarette smoke. Although the published set time for The Rapture was 11:30, I do wonder the harm in starting things early, and letting me catch the last bus home. The audience looked so young that surely there werent that many more beers sold in the half hour we waited. That is, of course, (falsely) assuming one would give up his or her spot pressed against the stage to enjoy liquid refreshment. Ah, Mr. Grumps at it again.
Nearly without notice, the DJs mix of modern dance beats over 80s pop faded, and bigger beats took over. The dimly lit stage revealed first a single figure behind a sequencer, then a second figure behind another and, finally, a third as the sounds built from mere rhythms to a New Order-styled dance song. From out of frame vocals entered in a high quiver entirely reminiscent of Robert Smith. I panned quickly as a light caught vocalist Luke Jenner walking onto the stage.
Ignoring the traditional instruments set up before the band, the first several songs were entirely electronic, danceable and divine. Despite the binary nature of the songs, they were human with defined structures and accessible arrangements. As the set continued, players began to abandon the keyboards and synthesizers and slowly pick up the bass, guitar, saxophone, and finally drum sticks. By the end of the set, any remnant of the digital version of the band was history.
This second incarnation of the band was immediately more familiar to the audience. Rather than electronic blips, the band traded on funky (and occasionally soulful) rock and roll enveloped in trendy indie sensibilities. Jenners paper-thin guitar work illustrated that succinctly. In another era, his sound may have banked entirely on a wah-wah pedal; not this time, however. His accents were entirely Gang of Four, not James Brown. Although the bands first recorded material could be loosely referred to as gothic, the band never let that old face resurface.
As the band became more raucous and resolute in their R&B, the audience responded in kind. Suddenly, hands were on my shoulders and waist, and bodies were pressed up against my back. Framing photos and adjusting for lighting conditions took a backseat to simply holding on to my camera and not toppling onto the stage as my knees buckled under the strain. The stage-level bruises on my thighs may be some indication of The Raptures success that evening.
The band ended its set with a noisy and sloppy version of Louie Louie, completing its conversion from a forward-thinking electronic juggernaut to an ordinary rock & roll band. During the song, as with much of the set, the saxophonist (and occasional cowbell virtuoso) could scarcely be heard. When audible, his deconstructionist squawks were pleasant additions, setting the band apart from its roots and its peers. To the performances detriment, his on-stage antics often kept him in motion, far from the microphone.
When called back to the stage for an encore, the band initially obliged with an original song. However for their second (and final) song, they returned to the annuls of rock, (un)covering Gary Glitters Rock & Roll Part II. Although I would have loved to hear the dry waiver of Jenners voice attempting Part I, his guitar freakout in Part II was more than satisfying. The audience also seemed to enjoy shouting Hey! while Jenners pumped his fist in rock machismo.
I considered picking up The Raptures latest CD, but upon exiting, the merch table was swamped. Similarly, I had questions to pose to the members of Out Hud which, it seems, will remain unanswered. As I pushed past the crowds and up the stairs, I dressed myself for the cold beyond the club door. I ask again, why didnt anyone warn me that Boston is so cold?
After a confused search for a bus stop that only exists on the MBTA website, I pushed my hands deeper into my coat pockets and waited for the final 64 of the night. After forty-five minutes of single-digit cold, I gave up, flagged down a taxi, and paid the $6.90 for the two-mile trip back to Union Square. Please, someone, tell me spring is on the way ...or at least share a cab home with me next time.