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all words: Philip Runco; all photos: Julian Vu from one of the previous times

When Real Estate opened for Girls at the Black Cat in the fall of 2009, I don’t think many of those in attendance would have predicted the New Jersey four-piece selling out the venue on its own just a few years later.

The band rode into town with a distinct whiff of buzz engendered by a handful of unassumingly entrancing songs that had seeped through the ether of the Internet during the preceding three seasons.   Its performance was comforting, like a “warm blanket on a windy beach day,” but little about its “languid,” understated set hinted at any ambition that would contradict the lethargic lifestyle extolled by frontman Martin Courtney’s lyrics.  Real Estate served mostly to soundtrack the audience’s chatter that night, and while that’s not uncommon for an up-and-coming band in a support slot, it was hard to imagine such a reception would be changing any time soon: no matter how good the band sounded from speakers on decks and back porches, it wasn’t quite clear Real Estate had the means or desire to win over an audience live.

Yet two years later, the Jersey boys were back at the Black Cat, headlining a show so sold out – in late January, no less – that even the 42nd most powerful person in D.C. couldn’t get a staff writer on the guest list.  (Good luck, Marco Rubio!)

What’s remarkable about this is how Real Estate has managed to attract such a following without fundamentally altering the carefree ease central to its music. On last year’s Days, guitars still jangle, riffs still spin pillowy circles around each other, and Courtney still sighs his way through songs, with everything wrapped in the same vaguely nostalgic haze.  Gone, however, is the haze of lo-fi production, and accompanying Days’ jump in fidelity are bigger hooks, a heartier rhythm section, and more pronounced flourishes from slyly subversive guitarist Matt Mondanile.

Question remained going into Sunday night though. Would these subtleties transfer to the stage?  Would the band be content to sleepwalk through another set?  Had the band attracted an audience adoring enough to be content popping an auditory Xanax?

Any concerns were quickly dismissed minutes into opener “Green Aisles”: Real Estate – now with a fifth member split between guitars and keys – has developed a formidable live presence.  On this and other originally meandering tunes, nearly every element benefited from some added oomph, particularly in that rhythm section, where Alex Beeker’s bass bobbed confidently and Jackson Pollis’ snare snapped with refreshing urgency.

This band is no longer just playing for the faithful, it’s converting the uninitiated.

Bleeker, Mondanile, and Courtney stretched out across the front of the stage, a subtle nod to the equal import of each to the band.  Of them, Mondanile thrives most in the live setting, where nearly every song’s bridge was punctuated by a watery-toned, psych-kissed solo.  Such guitar work drives his solo project Ducktails – see last year’s lovely “Killin the Vibe” – but is more subdued on Real Estate’s records. 

Perpetually hunched over and lurching back and forth as he riffed away,  Mondanile was revealing how difficult it could be to sound laidback.

Still, even when caught up in a jam – and things did get jammy, particularly on Mondanile’s instrumental “Kinder Blumen” and the relatively epic eight-minute closer “All the Same” – Courtney’s vocals were confidently smooth and consoling.  His turn on the devastating “Out of Tune” was the set’s highlight, though credit there also goes to multi-instrumentalist Jonah Maurer, whose uplift of cascading organ in the back third hit like a ton of bricks.

The set leaned heavily on the outstanding Days, where the music feels built around Courtney’s hooks and lyrics, and not – as on the band’s debut – vice versa.  Real Estate visited all ten of Days‘ tracks, sprinkling in only “Beach Comber” and “Fake Blues” from the less fully formed Real Estate.  (It also played an unreleased new song, which unsurprisingly fit right in with the rest of the material.)

Bleeker had his moment on lead vocals too.  His “Wonder Years” lays a resigned lament laid upon a buoyant pop song, always managing to take me back to listening to my parents’ Moody Blues tapes as a kid.  Unfortunately, the affable Bleeker sounded shaky in the spotlight, his voice wavering and providing the night’s one moment that the band didn’t sound utterly surefooted.

Bleeker was having a good night otherwise.  He had taken the stage in a heavy New York Giants sweatshirt and similarly dated hat, just as his team was entering overtime of the NFC championship.  Giant kicker Lawrence Tynes would hit the game-winning field goal six songs later, during the celebratory “It’s Real”.

“Okay,” Bleeker informed the audience, removing his sweatshirt, “the set can formally begin now.”

The Giants and Real Estate: two unlikely New Jersey success stories that are indeed very much real.