All words & photos: Kara Capelli
I wasn’t surprised when I woke up with “Generals” in my head Sunday morning. It’s the powerful and catchy declaration of a song from indie pop group The Mynabirds, who played Black Cat’s mainstage Saturday night. That song, also lending its name to title their most recent album, is making waves across the indie rock scene and for good reason. It’s a damn good song on a damn good album.
Mynabirds is led by D.C. native Laura Burhenn. She looks just like the quintessential female indie artist of this era with her long blond hair cut into thick bangs and wide eyes that pop out among otherwise tiny features. She appeared on stage as a beautiful child-woman, defying her petite frame and short stature with a her spotted-zigzag high heel wedges and a white backless onesie with birdwing sleeves that nearly touched the floor, donning a pin that read “attitude is everywhere.” But most of all, while retaining her childlike innocence and charm, she created her commanding and imposing presence with her powerful alto voice.
The show had the same energy and sentiment as the album Generals, though they split time equally with their 2010 release What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, including the title track. Their songs, the ones on Generals in particular, are poignant observations or demands for positive change in the world. She’s not up there on stage to complain or sing sad love songs; she’s using her music to convey messages about fighting for the future. She’s singing about the kind of love that makes the world go around – the love that keeps us from starting wars, or screwing each other over, or otherwise destroying the world – and her struggle to find it.
They started the show with “Karma Debt,” also the album opener. Burhenn wore some kind of stuffed small mammal on her head for that one, a pared down version of the head dress she wears in the picture that’s floating around the internet used by every site with a mention of the band. I’m not sure exactly what look she was going for – goddess of the animal kingdom? For the most part she remains unique, definitely, but she didn’t strike me as eccentric, so I’m not exactly sure. Although, it worked for her.
This antic aside, it was nearly impossible to take my eyes off of Burhenn for most of the show. Maybe it’s her quick smile or those big eyes, or more likely the beat driven tunes, her dramatic sways, and her clear compelling messages in the form of catchy tunes. Whatever the reason, the crowd, albeit small for the mainstage, was hungry to eat up her every word, move and song. She spoke to us once or twice as if we were a room of young grasshoppers, “Do you know what the secret to love is?” And then told us that the love part is easy, it’s liking the other person that’s the challenge. Charming.
Playing at the Black Cat was something of a homecoming for Burhenn. She grew up here and commented on her memories of coming to Black Cat to see shows when she was younger. I imagine it must have felt pretty good to be on the other side.
There was also one very special audience member standing off to the side of the stage: Mama Burhenn, nearly an exact, but older, replica of the lady on stage. Two songs into the encore Burhenn looked in that direction and declared that she had made an egregious error by forgetting her mom’s birthday earlier that month. She took the opportunity to make up for it/embarass the heck out of the woman (all to the absolute delight of the crowd) with their own rendition of The Beatles’ “Birthday.”
The whole show was uplifting and full of good cheer, with smiles emanating often from both the Mynabirds and opener Sean Bones. (Unfortunately, I missed the first opener Edie Sedgwick, so I don’t know how he fit into the mix.) Mynabird and Sean Bones have been touring together for a while, and it’s clear that they’re close friends and big supporters of one another. (Laura’s mom even baked cookies for them before the show.) Burhenn contributed to the opener’s set, and Sean Bones and crew came back on during the Mynabirds to slap drumsticks together and sing and dance to “Body of Work.” That kind of collaboration and friendship adds so much to shows and I can’t help but adore both bands for making it happen Saturday.
In their laidback, refined-but-not-showy manner, both the Mynabirds and Sean Bones were simply delighted to be playing for us. That said, with guitar, bass, drums and keys, the latter doesn’t have much to distinguish itself from John Doe Brooklyn Indie Band. Overall, they put on a nice show, and got a few people moving. But a nondescript hipster style, paired with timid, mild-mannered movement on stage doesn’t exactly scream showmanship and the music style didn’t have a hook either.
On the other hand, between their message, Burhenn’s beautiful voice, and their unique brand of beat-driven, indie pop, Mynabirds have plenty to latch onto. Their 2010 album What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood met ample success and critical acclaim, and their recent 2012 release Generals is even more cohesive and easier to latch onto. Now I can say definitively that Burhenn is a rare talent and also knows how to pulls off an entertaining live show.
- More shots of Mynabirds
- Sean Bones