All words: Andy Johnson
All photos: Stephanie Breijo
Sometimes a show just doesn’t click. For whatever reason—maybe the mix was off, the crowd vibe wasn’t right, the artists were sick or tired—a concert just isn’t good. I coerce everyone to see as much live music as possible. In this era of pirating and ready consumption via YouTube and Spotify, artists make their money out on the road. Seeing your favorite musicians live alleviates the guilt of stealing what took thousands of hours (and thousands of dollars) to craft. Nevertheless, Wednesday night was a prime example of when you should spend your money and social time other than the Black Cat.
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I missed the first act on the bill – London’s Daughter – but considering what followed, maybe it is for the best that I got to the venue late. Colorado-based Tennis consists of husband-and-wife duo Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley. They built their summery, minimalist sound on Moore’s breezy vocals, her la-la-las and catchy organ hooks, and Riley’s gentle guitar work. It’s adorable music, the type of jams that you listen to in a Prius with your scrumptious significant other on a May Saturday between going thrifting and brunch.
But if adorable translated to great performance, Zooey Deschanel would have an Oscar.
And like how Zooey Deschanel isn’t a good actress, Tennis aren’t good performers.
In fact, let me intensify my causticity: this band sucked.
They sucked so much that I feel somewhat upset that it is my duty as a music critic to go through the motions of trying to come up with witty statements and frame a narrative of their awesomely lackluster performance. I contend it is sufficient to simply state “This Band Sucks” and we can move on with our lives, deleting this night from our memory banks. But my duty for BYT must be fulfilled, so here we are.
On tour for their sophomore album Young & Old, the couple, backed with a drummer and a second keyboardist, ran through a 40-minute set that touched upon what some might consider to be their strongest material. My initial problem is that I could barely understand Moore’s vocals. I don’t know if that is how she always sings or if something was amiss at the ‘Cat, but taking already passive songs and flubbing the mix isn’t going to win you any brownie points.
I’ll admit that I occasionally tapped my toes. I’m human. I feel rhythm. I can point to “Pigeon” off their debut Cape Dory as one of the few moments of the evening that seemed to generate any sort of emotion out of these old bones. I’ll grant you that the clunky “Petition” was a savory oasis in the flavorless desert. But on the whole, a better name for Tennis would be Tofu: mild, refrigerated (digression: the air condition was acting a fool in the Gato Negro Wednesday night) and extremely tasteless.
About halfway through the set, Moore, who hadn’t said much the whole evening except for the requisite “Thank you!!!” at the culmination each song, looked out to the audience and said, “Okay, you can dance to this one.” They started to play. A few people in the sold-out audience started to sway. Some heads nodded. About a minute later, action ceased. The existential question of “Are we human or are we dancer?” was answered. It was at this point I had to bail. I couldn’t take the mediocrity anymore. I felt like I was in a bad blind date. I had to escape.
After their set ended, our photographer texted to meet up before White Rabbits played. I was grabbing a beer at the downstairs bar, a haven diametrically opposed to where Tennis was pumping out their milquetoast melodies. For the first time in many concerts, I felt sour inside because of how terrible a band was. To return to the bad blind date analogy, only the insertion of liquor could lessen my loathing.
Normally I temper my dislike for a band. I point out the positives in these reviews, holding back on the negatives. But I’m not pulling any punches this time. Tennis blows. I do not recommend seeing them. I will not apologize for not liking Tennis because they are not good. They don’t even have the decency to be bad in an offensive way, like a weird, droney performance art at the Velvet Lounge. The infuriating thing about Tennis is that they are completely inoffensive, which is light years worse. Like a terrible date, if you’re going to awful, please at least be awfully interesting.
Thank the maker Tennis were only opening, because White Rabbits were zounds better.
Hailing from Brooklyn-via-Columbia, Missouri, the sextet rolled on stage shortly after 10:30, a fairly late start for the DC audience. Unlike Tennis, who stuck with the shimmery cutesy girl vocals with bland backing troupe, White Rabbits were all over the place. The lazy comparison is that they sound like Spoon.
My oh my, how they sound like Spoon. I’m sure every review of this tour and of their new album Milk Famous will touch upon this, but the comparison is so stupidly obvious. They really, really, do sound like Spoon! Lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist Stephen Patterson sings just like Britt Daniel. The guitars sound like Spoon. The percussion (and kudos to the group for having as second percussionist) sounds like Spoon. The choruses sounded like Spoon. The “experimental” moments sound just like Spoon’s experimental moments. Hell, their last record was produced by Britt Daniel. In short, White Rabbits is Diet Spoon – all the flavor, none of the calories.
And it is these calories that make Spoon so damn interesting, and what makes White Rabbits an artificial approximation of Austin’s finest. It tastes fine, but you still have that weird aftertaste.
The previous time I saw White Rabbits, they sounded like your run-of-the-mill mid-aughts indie rock band, compressing the popular bands of the time: The Strokes, Arcade Fire, and a certain utensil-named group from Texas. But since then, they’ve expanded their sound away from that which made other buzzy bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Tapes ‘n’ Tapes obsolete, morphing into an amalgam of ‘70s post-punk and contemporary indie.
On “Heavy Metal”, the group showed a funky, ambient groove reminiscent of Fear Of Music-era Talking Heads. Patterson bounced around, alternating between guitar and keyboard, showing the charisma of a true showman. The band even flirted with Moving Units/The Rapture-esque dance punk on “Temporary,” as Patterson squealed “It’s temporary, it’s temporary, they don’t ask, oh no.” This time I danced. Not because I was asked to, but because I wanted to.
Even though their most recent album mashed their earlier sound into some sort of sort of post-post-punk-revival goo (?), they wisely didn’t shy away from their previous hits. “Percussion Gun”, off the Daniel-produced It’s Frightening, showed off the band’s greatest strength: the dual drummers. “Kid On My Shoulders”, from their debut Fort Nightly, remains the band’s strongest song, with its jangly guitars, hypnotizing bassline, and memorable bridge: “We held our tongues throughout it / One day we’ll laugh about it”. The stank of Tennis was nearly wiped away when they went into “The Plot”, where Patterson sings “He’s not impressed” over and over again against a pulsating, pulverizing rhythm.
This was not the worst show I’ve ever been to. White Rabbits saved what would have been a terrible evening with ample amounts of moxie and booming double drums. Yeah, they’re a Spoon clone, and I started to get bored after they ran through their best tunes. But some of today’s best groups are derivatives of better artists. Originality is overrated. After all, which is worst insult: You ripped someone off? Or that you really, really suck?