Saturday, February 8, 2014

EMP Sound Off! Round 1

For no good reason I haven't made it to the EMP Sound Off! events in a few years. This year I got tickets and rounded up my friend Charles to take pictures, and I'm glad I did: the first night of the Sound Off! was impressive. Troy Nelson from Young Evils (he also has a Saturday DJ slot on KEXP) was our MC.

First up was Tommy Cassidy. Just like Charles the photographer, Cassidy is from the Tri-Cities and went to Hanford High School. That plays a part in his message and we'll get to that, but first some details about the man and the band. Cassidy raps in front of a live band with horns. The band is fun and loud and has a women with a strong voice singing leads, alternating with Cassidy's raps and occasionally backing and filling during them. This band cooks along, and when the horn section comes in for some backing it's cool. When they run through some leads on the trumpet it's even better, and they even had some cool old school muted trumpet stuff giving a completely different sound and feel to one number.
Cassidy varied his approach in different songs, using a slower back-off-the-beat approach which somehow gave almost a visual quality to his raps, and also using a rapid fire intricate aggressive intense flow in another number that was visceral and powerfully emotional. Cassidy's range and lyrics and patter connected with us - his comments about being from the nuclear Tri-Cities and feeling like a stranger in his hometown resonated with everybody who's been a teenager.
Cassidy drew the first slot which is pretty much impossible to win from. He took a cold audience and warmed it up, did great work and impressed us, but then 3 more acts got to go on and distract us from the first performance, and they got to start with a warmed up audience. Cassidy showed he's more than capable of opening a show and I expect him to move up the bill quickly if he can make it to Seattle very often.
Quite talented and tight, Cassidy and the band got the crowd warmed up and into it.

Next Sophia Duccini took the stage with a violinist/fiddler and a backing vocalist. Duccini plays guitar and piano and sings, and the group gets an interesting range of sweet to haunting sounds and songs out of the lineup. The vocals stand out, with Duccini's strong leads carrying a good portion of the songs and the gorgeous harmonies reinforcing and ornamenting the songs and emotions. Duccini and her band cover a range of styles from piano based pop in the older sense to guitar and fiddle instrumentation with a folky Americana feel. Interesting music, I tend to think of it as small scale and a little quiet but Duccini instead made it introspective and recursive and filled with a different meaning each time they hit a repetition. It engages you and pulls you in without having to pound on you, it's almost a more hypnotic approach in some cases and more conversational in others. Getting the audience to connect to the music and get enthusiastic without that bottom end - no bass & no drums - is challenging but Duccini pulls it off, her music drives when she wants it to and she easily carries the rhythm on the guitar and piano, switching back and forth between songs. Already I'm torn between the first 2 performances, both groups are ridiculously talented and skilled. At this point I'm thinking the decision is between these two acts.

Next Laser Fox takes the stage. I've got to admit, the name is brilliant. It works really well in a chant - wait, I think that's a spoiler. Laser Fox kicked it off with a singer, drummer and two dudes at keyboards, one using an analog (or emulated analog) setup, and one of the two (couldn't tell which) filling in the low end so you had a good base line. It might have been sequenced or prerecorded bass, it's difficult to tell.

The lineup varied a bit from song to song, here one of the keyboard players is playing the bass guitar and the vocalist has taken over at the keyboard. The singer is the focus in this band. On a few songs he played a hollow bodied electric guitar and sang.
Laser Fox looked good, sounded good, and they sounded like they felt good. The crowd started getting into it and dancing and moshing, and the vocalist started strutting around and gesturing as he sang. The dude had charisma to spare and was totally pulling it off with the mosh pit getting bigger and more intense and just eating it up: we loved him. Laser Fox knows how to put on a show, and the pacing and slot (good hot hip-hop to warm up, internal and relationship songs (some were both) to whet our appetite, now a big loud testosterone filled performance - in a nice NW way, we are after all a polite Scandinavian influenced culture topped things off nicely. We were already having fun and then that danceable electronic music hit and we started moving, and the vocalist was moving with us and dancing and dropping and totally thriving on the attention. They got that feedback loop going where the audience intensity feeds off of the band's performance and then the band feeds off of the increasing audience intensity. Hot stuff, we were bouncing around and sweating and moshing.

I was sweaty and sore, and normally I'd expect a let down after 3 acts this good. On the other hand, a buddy had spoken highly of Dames. Dames plays a largely guitar driven sound with keyboards and (judging by the Macs) either sequenced or recorded bits too.

Dames brought their audience with them and turned in a rocking set, keeping the energy level high and making us sweat and bounce even more. The guitarist lead vocalist was the focus through much of the show and his voice held the songs together and felt very personal, like he was talking to you and a few friends, not to a few hundred sweaty fans bouncing around in the mosh pit.

The mosh pit was bigger than ever and fun, filled with smiling people bouncing around and surging off of each other. All the thrashing fans in the mosh pit showed an innate politeness and niceness, and those are not terms I usually use to describe a mosh pit. Seriously, it was the nicest, sweetest mosh pit I've ever been in. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't lame or low intensity at all, it was full of people flying around and surging forward and to the sides and sweating and thrashing, your typical intense mosh pit. Nobody was in studs and leather, no really big dudes who like bruising people, and none of those boneheads who like to cover their faces with a bandanna then do spin moves with feet flying, putting everyone nearby at risk. I was happy not to run into any of that, it made being in the mosh pit after more than 5 decades on this Earth much more manageable.

Dames also had the most elaborate set - they put up a vinyl goose. OK, not terribly elaborate, but probably the best I've seen since The Lonely H did the light sabre duel in the way back in the 2004 Sound Off - they came in second. Not only did Dames bring the crowd, they were great to mosh with and their joy in the performance was infectious and the night ended up being a sweaty dance party on top of a rocking show - and that's one of my favorite things to experience.

I'm amazed at the level of talent on display at the first weekend of the Sound Off contest, every band was great and did something completely different and unique. Laser Fox ended up winning, and they arguably put on the best show. Dames was the runner up so they have a shot to make it as the wild card band and for once the judge's selections seem pretty solid. In the past the judges always seemed to reward the weakest bands, so this was refreshing. I shouldn't be surprised, the judges included Hollis and Marco Collins and I respect them both for their musical taste - Collins helped form or should I say update my taste a few decades back when he was a DJ on a local Seattle radio station and Hollis performs and contributes to some of my favorite musical stuff at a ridiculously high level - you can't nail that many things that well without having exquisite musical taste and judgement. Definite hat tip and high fives all around to the judges for representing and choosing awesome dynamic performers to advance.

I've discovered that the mosh pit is a time travel device. When I get into the mosh pit, my age decreases by a decade or more: I'm much younger and more energetic, and it's a fun and occasionally joyous experience. Then I get out of the mosh pit and go into the cold outside air, and the missing decade comes back from his smoke break, and he's got another couple decades of his buddies he invited over, and I feel SO OLD. I shuffle back to the car lifting my sore feet with my sore legs, sweat evaporating and cooling me off rapidly.
While the end of the evening is a little painful, there's a tautology here that guarantees that it's always worth it. I was sore because I had been dancing and moshing, and that's a spiritual experience to me. At the best shows the music takes you out of yourself and engages you in every way. You move and respond to the music physically, just as you react and respond to it emotionally. You're sharing this experience in a fellowship with the rest of the crowd. Good lyrics engage your intellect too, and emotionally charged writing often fires off associations and memories.

It's a wonderful and intense experience, and I'm always happy to be introduced to more bands that are figuring out how to engage and move a crowd, how to create and present their art and entertain and thrill us. Here's to four new to me bands that are all worth keeping an eye out for and going out of your way to see. All of these bands know what they are doing and I look forward to watching them progress, and yes to, some day saying "I knew them when..."