All photos: Alex Lee
Rock and Roll Hotel hosted three very different musicians of varying quality Thursday night. DC-based Black Hills opened the evening. The solo project of singer/keyboardist Aaron Estes, formerly of Bellman Barker, was backed by four friends, played a short set of dreamy electropop (think Air) meets boilerplate indie rock in the vein of Band of Horses. The quintet was plagued with technical problems, but Estes remained unflappable, thanking the audience for their attendance.
Estes introduced a new song, joking that the “Good thing about new songs is that no one knows if you fucked up.” It also helped that this new song’s guitarwork sounded eerily reminiscent of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” and if you’re not down with “Eye,” you’re probably an asshole. All in all, a solid set by an upcoming local artist, but it might behoove them to tighten up the quality control of their equipment and not open up for one of the weirdest artists I’ve had the “pleasure” of witnessing.
If I could sum up Berlin’s Off Love (stylized as o F F Love or ‘oFF’ Love) in one word, it would be uncomfortable. This cat comes out on stage wearing a ying-yang bandana obscuring his face, topped off with a Super Bowl XXVIII peach beanie. His arms were covered in heart stickers and band-aids. He brought out three vinyl quinceañera balloons and tied them to the floor. A projector played looped videos of chopped-and-screwed boy bands videos—and not even any recognizable ones like N’Sync or Backstreet Boys, but tier-three groups like O-Town or 5ive. His ethereal, R&B-inspired vocals were heavily auto-tuned to the point of being unrecognizable mechanic goo.
The video screen flashed perversely uplifting phrases like “HOLD ME IN YOUR ARMS TONIGHT.” His dance moves were in a serpentine manner more akin to Carlton Banks than Axl Rose. Midway through his act, he descended to gyrate in front of a poor girl who was parked in the front of the stage. When he ascended back to his perch, she looked back and mouthed “Oh my God.” I felt her pain.
He untied a balloon and began dancing with it as a guest violinist came out to jam. He again dropped to our level and started to boogie with anyone—boys & girls—who were unlucky enough to be caught in his dancepath. He mercifully left after about a half hour, the projector continuing to loop the boy bands videos over a haunting piano dirge. To be honest, I can’t even rate Off Love’s performance as being good or bad. Such a judgment would require him to exist in the same plane of reality as us normal folk.
Thankfully those who didn’t flee the Hotel after the creepy 808s & Heartbreak shitshow were privy to one of the most inspiring performances I’ve seen in many moons. How to Dress Well, the nom de plume of experimental R&B singer Tom Krell, came out to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” about 10:15 pm along with two multi-instrumentalists. His stage name is ironic, given the goateed-Krell was wearing an oversized Death Grips t-shirt.
Krell told the crowd this was the first time he’s been to DC in years, informing us the last time he was in the District he purchased a pair of fake Oakleys. Furthermore, he warned the audience that he was quite sick and he tried to rest for a few hours prior to the show to build up strength. I guess he got enough sleep or took the proper amount of drugs because his incredible falsetto—and I must stress incredible—was fully on point throughout the hour-long set.
Many intimate shows, especially ones at Rock and Roll Hotel (lovingly referred to as “Blowtel” by haters), are spoiled by too much audience chatter. This was not a problem Thursday night. Krell played a selection of songs from his critically acclaimed sophomore album Total Loss, peppering in highlights from his debut album Love Remains, including a violin-backed performance of “Suicide Dream 2” that silenced the antsy crowd. The only other artist I’ve seen put on such a dominating vocal performance this year was Fiona Apple, and she had the privilege of performing to an audience of die-hards in a synagogue.
Throughout the evening, Krell performed eyes closed shut, hands clutching the two microphones (one regular, other adding a slight delay), with a projector rotating through various ambient images. I was surprised that his act contained so much bass, including a mighty flourish halfway through “Cold Nites” that caused the stranger next to me to let out an audible “Whoa!”
Krell accurately introduced “Ready for the World” as his dance song, getting his audience moving amidst bass swells and looped synths. Krell, an unabashed fan of 90’s R&B and hip-hop, even threw in a few bars of Kanye West & R. Kelly’s “To The World” from Yeezy’s G.O.O.D. Music compilation to the audience’s delight. He followed this up with finger-snapping New jack swing-inspired “& It Was U,” which is on this writer’s shortlist for song-of-the-year. As he sang, “You don’t have to worry / My love will be there for you,” the Hotel was full of smiles as Krell’s eyes were forced open by the positive energy in the room.
Krell closed his set with “Set It Right” and “Ocean Floor For Everything,” the former featured Krell ticking off names of people in his life he was missing. Krell seemed genuinely moved by the audience’s reaction to his performance, saying that he felt like shit prior to coming out, but the adrenaline had suppressed his illness. He reluctantly came out to perform “Decisions” in an encore, asking the audience to not record it or “post it on YouTube” because he feared in his weakened state that he couldn’t hit the
required high notes.
His insecurity was all for naught, for this a capella version was beautiful: we got to hear Krell’s raw vocal mastery without amplification or digital manipulation. How To Dress Well put on such a fantastic show that it causes me to question if this is how he sounds when sick, we might not able to handle him performing at peak vigor.
- Off Love: