Bringing the bombast, drama and light show of a larger venue to Lost Lake, EMA and opening act Mas Ysa pushed enough air to test the sound system of most smaller rooms to its limits. Mas Ysa even commented that he thought he was overloading the monitor, but it didn't sound like it on the receiving end of the music. It hasn't been too new a development, but the room where the performance went down didn't have that 1970s American Legion hall vibe that gave the older look of the place its kitschy charm for some and the old school dive air for others. Sure, there were holes in the tiles of the drop ceiling, but mostly it felt like walking into a small, dark club in a downtown area of a larger city instead of a small, homey bar on Colfax.
The east wall appeared to be decked out in dark padding. Gone also were the booths, chairs, photo booth and other features that used to adorn the room. This gives the place a more spacious ambiance and makes room for a small stage that elevates the band off the floor. In its own way it was as dramatic a change as when the Lion's Lair moved the stage to the northwest corner of the bar rather than across the bar along the west wall.
A real sound system is in place, and EMA and Mas Ysa both sounded vibrant and clear. The room also didn't feel as jumbled as it had in its earlier set-up. The bar proper is largely the same but also feeling more opened up. It felt cozy before like a neighborhood bar should but in some ways the change has made it feel like 15th Street Tavern minus the sewer smell of the end and without sticky floors but with a bit of a separation of spaces.
Mas Ysa's one-man display of complex knob turnings triggering various sounds would have come off more like a DJ set, but it had more in common with the sort of electro-pop songcrating of the earlier end of the "chillwave" artists. Except Ysa employed more robust low end, which pulsed through the room but never came off as overwhelming. That came with the beginning of EMA's set. The performance might not have worked, but Mas Ysa was so enthusiastic and put so much energy behind his vocals, interspersed with unaffected, self-deprecating humor, that you ended up liking him as much as his music. And as much air as he was pushing, the system seemed to handle it with no trouble.
Three-fourths of EMA took stage and established a hushed mood before Erika Anderson came on to some applause and from there, with four rectangular columns of LEDs in the background providing much of the light with dynamic imagery and coloring, she and the band, without coming off as a pretentious, overreaching smaller band with a little bit of money, created the kind of rock theater you usually only see at a much larger venue. Bigger even than some place like the Bluebird. Anderson's dramatic gestures and diverse songwriting provided a narrative of what it's like being a weirdo living in Nowheresville, Midwest America, being aware that what you're seeing and experiencing isn't the whole world. That, coupled with glimpses of a world beyond in music, in images from television and films, and even an underground music world that isn't so far out of reach.
Throughout the show Anderson and one of her band mates kept triggering a fog machine that apparently they had just bought. It seemed quasi-unpredictable. But even that little bit made moments in the show reminiscent of seeing M83 or Blonde Redhead. EMA's songs have lyrics that hit some heavy, deep places with an unflinching honesty coupled with poetry and compassion -- identifying the pain and exposing its sources as a way to heal, rather than as a terrible reminder evoked again and again on a tour. Thus, while the show felt gigantic, it also felt intimate in a way that really wouldn't be much possible at a larger venue. That the sound system allowed the music to be delivered so richly and with such vivid clarity simply enhanced the impact of music that already is plenty affecting.
Encores are a little silly at small shows but EMA came back on at the end and kicked things off with a noisier rock version of the Bikini Kill classic "Feels Blind." And at the very end Anderson performed a song alone. Though this can happen at a larger venue the informality of the encore, with the band not disappearing to some mysterious green room, it felt like Lost Lake has combined high sound quality with a small club show on par with a place like the hi-dive or 3 Kings Tavern but with its own vibe, distinctly different from comparable rooms in Denver.
Bias: I saw Anderson's old band Gowns a couple of times at Rhinoceropolis in 2007 and remained a fan of her guitar work and songwriting thus continuing to follow her career as EMA. Plus, she played my favorite Bikini Kill song instead of covering something more predictable.
Random Detail: Ran into former Caustic Soul bass player and synthesist David Spethman, experimental musician Sara Century and local author Krystal Baugher at the show.
By the Way: The Future's Void, EMA's latest album, already is where a lot of electro pop artists want to or will go soon enough.
If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.
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