review by: Jesse Young
Opener Casual Curious play the kind of smooth 70s-style R&B that you don’t typically expect from a North Carolina band. Their stabs at downtown funk would feel equally at home over the opening credits of a blaxploitation flick as they did in a room full of self-consciously dressed white kids in the barely fire code-compliant space that was the Gibson Guitar Showroom on Saturday. Placing their sax lines way up front, both melodically and in their live mix, is a smart move for the band: even their instrumental numbers have a distinctive, lived-in feel that you don’t always get in vocals-free songs.
Fort Lean are a way great and new-ish band from the cool part of Brooklyn, although they all originally know each other from the same asshole liberal arts college that I went to in Connecticut. Their sound rollicks amiably back and forth between synth-hued guitar rock and wistful, slow-burn balladry. Vocalist and guitarist Keenan Mitchell is the axis of their live show, wholly hard to ignore with his enormous mop of bleached-blonde hair and bent-kneed guitar god theatrics. He’s not afraid to push his voice past its range if it serves the brute emotional force of a tune, and his beer-swilling good humor made for endearing between-song banter. Dude also plays a guitar with a locking bridge and a mess of humbucking pick-ups, which is generally the kind of intense axe you want when showing off your killer Van Halen-style shredding skillz. Mercifully, this wasn’t the case (further note to guitar nerds: he had a 5150 amp head, weirdly).
Guitarist Zach Fried is the unpretentious anchor of the band’s mid-range – he’s comfortable working out clever chord inversion on his Telecaster in a way that blends seamlessly with the rest of the band. His presentational opening riff for “Beach Holiday” is a fine testament to both restraint and melodic elegance. When keyboardist Will Runge strapped on a guitar, the arrangements never felt cluttered or muddy despite the thicket of six-strings on stage.
My note from last night about drummer Sam Ubl reads “unshowy but consistently idiosyncratic drumming.” That’s embarrassingly bad writing on my part, but I’d had several beers by that point and it’s pretty true – he and bassist Jake Aron formed a tight, propulsive unit that lent many of the band’s songs a comfortably dance-y hue. Even the elegiac torch song “Dreams (Never Come True)” coulda shut down a high school semi-formal dance in 1956 (or 1986).
Reptar’s show-closing set began with a roar of shimmering, Baba O’Riley-styled sequenced synths, setting the tone for their lush, sweaty live show (also, I seriously wrote down ‘shimmering’ maybe 4 times last night? I need to go back to word school). Graham Ulicny’s impish, spitfire vocals were in stark contrast to the warm wash of the band’s sound, crashing into every consonant like a barbed insult. The songs’ pitched, shouted refrains contorted his face into a rictus that surely signaled that the guy was having a good time, or possibly a severe stroke.
Reptar put on a great live show. The electronic sequenced elements of their sound occasionally recall Passion Pit or Yeasayer, but with a slippery, tropical shading that was both accessible and crazy danceable. William Kennedy’s keyboards form the core of their arrangements, while Ulicny’s defiant David Byrne-esque rhythm guitar provides an insistent counterpoint.
While “Stuck In My Id” is fantastic on paper, it comes alive on stage – a stomping, raucous sing-along anthem. The whole room basically lost its collective shit all at once when they played it. The spare touches of bouncy, Graceland guitar supplied some pleasantly unconventional color as well. “Houseboat Babies” – with a guest assist on sax from Casual Curious – was a phenomenal showcase for the band’s sheer sonic force. “Rainbounce” was a frenetic, earth-shaking lone encore. Good good stuff.