Well away from the densest cluster of the festival was a place called Fentress Architects Materials Garden on 4th and Broadway, and when you walked through the glass doors, there was a large room with these odd glass-encased displays that led to doors into something like a courtyard, with the back walls lined with samples of tile. It was in this environment to a quiet and respectful audience that Wentworth Kersey performed its delicately graceful songs.
There's something about the sounds swimming on the edges of the melodies in a Wentworth Kersey song that create a heightened sense of reality. Jeffrey Stevens has a way of making sounds that suggest far horizons, light breezes and blue skies. Joe Sampson's acoustic guitar sound, coupled with his utterly sincere vocal delivery, was the embodiment of a fragile, earthy beauty. With the sun not yet set as the show started, the sky behind the band darkened as the music, even the encore demanded of Sampson, ended. Perfect timing.
Having decided, by default, to stay at the north end of the festival for the night, it wasn't a long walk to Club 404 across the street from the Fentress to catch A Tom Collins, a four-piece lead by Aaron Collins and featuring a trumpet player, saxophonist and upright bassist. Collins showcased his strong, gritty vocals and elegant but forceful keyboard work with an ebullient set of songs that sounded like they were influenced by Tom Waits and by various strains of New Orleans music.
Rowboat, the side project of Blue Million Miles frontman Sam McNitt, was supposed to fill in for a band that had dropped out, but he was able to convince his Blue Million band mates to fill in. It wasn't the band's wildest show but it seems as though these guys have really tightened up their material, and the song "Sunday Eyes" has never sounded better.
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With coiling dynamics between guitars and rhythm locking together perfectly, Jeff Shapiro still lifted his guitar up in the "unicorn" gesture, and Johnny Lundock wailed away on the drums with his usual sense of raw abandon while holding down a solid low end with Ethan Ward. There was some newer material, as well, and it represents some of the band's strongest songwriting to date, with an even keener attention to melody and pacing.
How Bad Luck City is able to play with such power and intensity while being the most well-dressed band of the evening is a mystery. Dameon Merkl joked with the audience with a smooth, earthy yet articulate wit throughout the show, and for at least one song, it was hard to tell if he was making up the lyrics on the spot. There wasn't a dull moment in the set, as the band played old favorites, of course, like "The Girls of St. Magdalene's Parrish," and "Chop Tank."
The true standout of the evening, however, came when the band played "The Unclean Song," as Merkl explained, was for an unclean place where we could get unclean with each other. The build-up on that song is among Bad Luck's best for a band who are masters of heightening sonic and emotional tension within a song. The whole thing ended with "The Blood Trail of McCulloch Gulch." Josh Perry's guitar solo toward the middle end of the song is still one of the most haunting riffs of the last ten years.
A place called the Import Warehouse was the site of the James Pants show. It seemed like his show attracted a pretty broad cross-section of people at the festival even if many of them didn't stick around for the full fifty or so minutes of the set. Pants is kind of a rebel master of mixology. His own music is a unique mixture of hip-hop, dub and ambient. But for most of this performance, he mixed in samples of songs he didn't write, along with some scratching on the turntables.
Somewhere in there, it sounded like he found a way to mix in Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Kraftwerk, the Doors, M83 and the Stooges, among others. Pants also triggered a cover of "Lovebuzz" with a female singer sampled doing the vocals disco style with Pants filling in where necessary. Because of his creative use of samples and blending together connected musical themes, Pants schooled us on how to a DJ gig for real and not fake it.
Sometime while at Club 404, Leanor Till told me that Nathan & Stephen were playing at the Mayan at one o'clock, and I had assumed she meant the new project from her husband and Nathan McGarvey. No, it was to be a full-blown Nathan &Stephen reunion. When I walked through the doors of the Mayan, the notorious Magic Cyclops was on stage doing a song for the ladies, something about it being their time of the month and riding paper ponies.
Apparently some of the Nathan & Stephen guys were still at their gig with Houses down the street at the hi-dive, and Magic was filling in the gap in time. The absurd synth pop and ridiculousness went on for far longer than even Magic wanted it to and included a song called "Teenage Pregnancy Don't Do it." Magic also did a cover of "Total Eclipse of the Heart," including a part where he walked down to the floor from the stage and would dance like "Stevie Nicks after some cocaine suppositories."
True enough. The guy intended for that to be his closer but he scrambled for an epilogue to what had been just enough material. Fortunately, the "encore" included the outrageously offensive yet funny "Online Predator," a bit of air drumming to "When Smokey Sings" by ABC. The whole thing came to an end when Magic used a puppet to "duet" on "Say It Isn't So" by Hall & Oates. By then, Nathan & Stephen had arrived in its entirety to save us from more bad, albeit funny, karaoke.
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For this incarnation of Nathan & Stephen, it was the whole band but with Rob Burleson on drums and Eric Peterson on keyboards. Who knows from where this group of people pulled the reserves of physical and emotional energy to pull off such a memorably lively and passionate performance, but it also seemed to have inspired people to dance and sing along with each of the ten songs.
Almost everything you'd want to hear by the band was played including "Tunnel of Love," which McGarvey said the band had never played live before. This band is always a good time, and part of it is that the songs are so good. With lyrics that aren't just some kind of fake Up with People sort of thing, they acknowledge life's low points, but like a good friend, the songs give comfort and encouragement to go at this thing called life yet again with some tenacity and good will.
During "Farewell Valentine," McGarvey crowd surfed for the first time and made it to the second row of seats before he was gently carried back to stage. When the show ended with "Little Squares of Paper," McGarvey again rode the crowd to about the third row of seats and was seen to be engulfed by his friends. It could have been the tiring end of a super long night but you can't see Nathan & Stephen and not feel good about everything.