I was in a slump. It felt like nothing was going right. Things just weren’t going my way. I turned to my favorite pastime, live music. Somehow, I ended up going to four shows in two weeks to, quote America’s pop laureate, “shake it off.”
I had received an invite to a show for a band I knew by name only, Japanese Breakfast. I could be pretty open-minded when my friend John was just handing me tickets.
Japanese Breakfast, like myself, are from Philly. The night before the show, John had gotten a only few hours of sleep. He bailed on the show, which he purchased tickets to. Neither of us wanted the tickets to go to waste so I took his other ticket. Another friend, Sachin, had coincidentally been listening to JB the night before, so he hopped along.
Japanese Breakfast was a fun and energetic live act playing the compact 9:30 Club. Their sound is comparable to a combination The XX and Big Thief, but if those two bands played at double speed. Michelle Zauner is essentially Japanese Breakfast. She is a charismatic and lively performer playing multiple instruments and bouncing around the stage.
The highlight was “12 Steps” from her latest album 2017, Soft Sounds from Another Planet. It’s chorus aches, “I can’t blame you, it’s just that we let love run its course/And it’s a little bit lonelier.” For a headliner with two openers, JB blew through their set in what felt like less than an hour.
Two days later, John finally got some sleep and planned to see Dirty Projectors, again at the 9:30 Club. Their self-titled album was one of my favorites from last year. The album was built around lead Dave Longstreth’s break-up with former bandmate Amber Coffman. (Coffman released a rebuttal album, City of No Reply last year as well, which was produced by Longstreth.)
Longstreth, like Zauner, is the entirety of Dirty Projectors on the latest album, but he is supported by a backing band in concert. For ten-plus years, he has been known as a guitar virtuoso playing sharp guitar and making dynamic indie-pop-rock. Before last year’s record, Projector had not been on tour in a very long time. There was excitement to finally see songs from the last album live as well as get a preview of their new album, Lamp Lit Prose, out next month.
Ticketfly, the best alternative to the Ticketmaster/LiveNation behemoth, had experienced a major cyber attack. It was impossible to buy tickets to this show online as their entire platform had been shut down. The show was surprisingly early with doors opening at 6PM on a Friday. I rushed out of work expecting the show to sell out.
To our surprise, only ten people were present at the venue before the opener. We easily grabbed a spot on the rail and make conversation with fellow eager fans. The opener, Buzzy Lee, played an early, intimate set to a crowd of maybe 30 people, who were gradually filling the club. They were small duo with a woman on keyboard and a man on guitar. We would find out later that this woman was Sasha Spielberg, daughter of Steven.
After Buzzy Lee, the venue was looking more like a show for a renowned indie act. Around 8 PM on a Friday night, Dave Longstreth and his crew took the stage. With three women and three men, including Longstreth, the band played a combination of traditional rock instruments plus electronic keyboards and gizmos.
Longstreth is an absolute genius on guitar creating the fuzzy, yet cutting thread that holds each Dirty Projectors song together. Directly in front of our faces, he shredded and shook through each tune. John gave Longstreth a “Hi Dave!” caught him off guard as he was on one knee tuning his guitar. Thankfully, the guitarist was cool enough to say hi back.
John told me a major portion of the set was unreleased tracks from Lamp Lit Prose, which helped me avoid embarrassment when I didn’t recognize many songs. The cuts from Dirty Projectors sounded smooth, yet retained a live pop. Multi-instrumentalist Felicia Douglass stood in for DΔWN on “Cool Your Heart.” The grating “Keep Your Name” kept its reverberations and contempt.
Dave Longstreth was able to regroup a set of completely new musicians and keep every step which made Dirty Projectors fantastic through the years. If I had one complaint, it was that they skipped “Up in Hudson,” the highlight of the 2017 album. It is also a seven-minute song that feels like a real-time recap of Longstreth and Coffman’s relationship.
The following Tuesday, John and I planned to attend another Philly band’s show at the 9:30 Club. However, John’s body had decided to fail him once again as he came down with a stomach bug.
Hop Along, a great indie quartet, had released their third album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, back in April. The album was led by the fantastic single, “How Simple,” a song about reaching a deal-breaker in a relationship and the split decision to end it. The chorus growls, “Don’t worry we will both find out just not together.”
With John incapacitated, I persevered and attended the show alone. (I could write a whole essay on going to shows alone is fantastic, but this is already a long piece.)The opener, Bat Fangs, were coincidentally a local D.C. band. While I couldn’t remember a song they played, I do remember them being fun. They had an 80’s hard rock kind of feel with a lead with a Joan Jett look and attitude. They played fast and furiously through a quick half-hour set.
Hop Along emerged roughly twenty minutes later from behind a net of dim lightbulbs. They led with “How Simple,” rather than keep it for the end. It was a sensible move to get the hit out of the way fast and retain true fans. Frances Quinlan, the lead singer, has a beautiful and singular voice. There is this expansive and enveloping depth to it, but there’s this grit on every word that paints emotional strain on every word.
The Philly band came with humility. Hop Along has paid their dues getting to a hit like “Simple.” The June 5th show was the first time they came to D.C.’s landmark venue as a headliner. They brought the kind of shy, indie rockstar charm, lightly smiling at woos from the crowd.
The hour-long set was about half songs from Dog with handfuls of songs from their other two albums. Quinlan’s voice stands out on the record, but that voice goes beyond live. The crowd could really feel the angst and wit fully behind the microphone.
Now, every previously-mentioned act has created truly great art. The songwriting and craftsmanship that went into “How Simple,” “12 Steps,” and Dirty Projector are pieces of true vulnerability. Yet, there is something about an act that has mastered their live performance over a decade of touring and festivals.
Chromeo has never been noted as a complex band. The Jewish-Arab duo of Dave-1 and P-Funk are talented electronic musicians. No one will go to this band for lyrical complexity or intuitive storytelling. I’ll tell you though, if you’re trying to have a good time, Chromeo know a thing or two.
It is too fun to describe Chromeo. I could say they were just two cartoon characters who came to life and decided to start a funk band. (Dave-1 was animated for Ezra Koenig’s Netflix show, Neo Yokio) I could say that they’re the funky version of Han Solo and Chewbacca. There is something equally campy and macho about them. I need convincing that these two are real human beings and not holograms.
When a great live act takes the stage, there’s something you feel the second they kick into gear. The stress in your shoulder dissipates immediately. If you thought you were too cool to dance, your body will tell you differently. The same feeling took me when I saw HAIM last month. (The sisters happened to star in Chromeo’s video for “Old 45s.”)
The show was at, you guessed it, the 9:30 Club. It was the first installment of their tour for their new album, Head Over Heels, out Friday. It was probably the smallest venue on the tour. The stage looked cramped with multiple sets of synthesizers tucked between a reflective catwalk and lighting array. They’ll be hitting bigger venues like New York’s Terminal 5 and Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater down the road.
The tight stage was nothing for Dave and P to worry about. The duo played a career–spanning set with plenty of duck-walking, strutting and guitar solos to go around. Chromeo puts on such a visual concert that they’re practically begging you to post to Instagram.
While the three previous acts could perform with a multitude of feelings and emphasize technical skill, Chromeo played 18 versions of the a slick, confident, electro-funk song. Normally, that could be considered an act of insanity, but they brought so much energy and pizzazz that it hardly mattered.
Did all these shows get out of my slump? Hell no. Did every time I left one of these shows I feel immensely better? Hell yeah. Dirty Projectors, Japanese Breakfast and Hop Along helped me really feel my stresses and Chromeo helped me shake them off.
Fantastic shows won’t solve your problems. There’s hardly a simple fix for any of us. For four nights, over the last two weeks, I forgot the world for a few hours with a friend and a beer or two in a dark room surrounded by happy strangers.