Raise your hand if you knew Wild Nothing played dance music.
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Five p.m. yesterday and I don’t know the person to my right, my left, or right in front of me. My phone’s dead. I might sublet from this one guy, but I don’t know his last name, and by today I’ll realize I probably wrote down his number wrong.
Things I do know: Wild Nothing is playing at the Black Cat. Wild Nothing is Jack Tatum. Wild Nothing makes dreamy guitar music that’s normally pillowy enough that calling it “rock” feels like a stretch. Tatum’s melodies are as memorable as anyone’s.
Things I don’t know: where the Black Cat is; whether there are still tickets available; how much tickets cost; whether they take card; what time the show starts.
Just a rumour: Dave Grohl owns the Black Cat.
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When I heard Wild Nothing’s Gemini several years ago, I mentally slotted their work alongside peers like Toro y Moi, Washed Out, Craft Spells, and Small Black. What was originally called “chillwave” has, with the maturation of those artists, turned out to be more of a similarity of origins than direction. With second and third albums, those artists have diverged in sound, but their beginnings remain similar: bedroom auteurs, bands with one member, whose style has more pop than rock to it. Their most prominent characteristic was the way that, as Athenas sprung from the forehead of a creative Zeus, each one occupied a shamelessly idiosyncratic headspace.
Surprise, surprise, then, to see the four mics lined up across the stage at the Black Cat. There’s no reason to think this is now a Grizzly-Bear style democracy–Tatum’s still the total author–but it’s also no longer a headphone experience. This is music to be played live, with a thick bass and backup vocals and extended synth intros. Thank god for extended synth intros.
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The way I entered DC probably didn’t do the city any favors. I flew redeye from San Francisco in early July, arriving in the middle of a heatwave that left me smelling in ways I thought I’d left behind when I finished studying abroad in humid South India, and I almost immediately started work. For the first couple weeks I stayed close to the known territory of the Orange-Blue line I took to and from work, rarely straying from the guiding hands of my friends who knew the city better than I. In all, it was hardly a flattering way to get to know the place.
Saturday was a bit of a change from that. On my own, I wandered down the vital 14th St corridor, unsure exactly where the venue was but with enough of a head start to be sure I’d make it. With a couple friendly gestures from strangers, I found myself inside the Black Cat. It was twenty minutes and a dollar down the jukebox until I realized the show was actually upstairs, but hey. You can’t win ’em all.
The opener, UME, was a mystery to all parties questioned by yours truly before the show. From their first chords on, UME did everything in their power to dispel any mystery at all about their M.O.: hard and fast lady-led guitar rock. Straightforward they might be, but frontwoman Lauren Larson did everything she could to bend, choke, and twist every last squawk out of her various guitars. Despite a high, slight voice when speaking, Larson roars in song, and even then usually loses the fight for volume against her bandmates’ muscular playing and her own usually-screaming guitar. (The band proved adept at incorporating moments–mostly fleeting–of arpeggiated balladry, an aspect that will have to be expanded upon to give their sound appeal to those who don’t necessarily want to be relentlessly pummeled with shredding.)
It wasn’t until, as Tatum was striding onto stage and I could read his expression, that I realized that in the time since I’d shown up for the opener the big room at Black Cat had completely filled. I was, to be honest, surprised; perhaps I hadn’t been paying attention. The band’s popularity had escaped me until now. But it’s easy to see why they would hold mass appeal: the Tatum’s strength as a songwriter resides squarely in his ability to craft an earworm melody.
Live, the melodies remain as catchy as ever. The first several songs reminded me of Real Estate, who also foreground interlocking guitar parts. As the show went on, however, the bass–cut up-front and thick–began to gain prominence. Several band members implored the crowd to dance, and honestly a couple cuts could have been Bowie impressions, down to the slackly muttered lyrics and the chiming guitar parts. Tatum admittedly can’t reach back and wail like Bowie, but who can? If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that there’s too little diversity in song style and structure; most everything is mid-tempo, with the same clean sound and drawled-voice tone. Some would say that, unlike Bowie’s rubber soul, the funky parts lack roll and the indie parts lack rock.
Tatum’s made progress there, though. Saturday’s show gave us both the taut dance build-up of “Paradise” and the straight-ahead, careening indie rock of “Summer Holiday.” Both were evening standouts, but stood at opposite sides of the spectrum for Wild Nothing. Exploring the possibilities at the ends of that spectrum seems like the next step in Wild Nothing’s evolution.
Before tonight Wild Nothing, for me, were symbolized, as a band, by the hypnotic, slowly escalating introduction to “Live in Dreams” — an enchanting but ultimately unobtrusive sort of group. Yet that intro escalates to a perfectly chant-worthy chorus, and before I knew it, there I was with a couple hundred other fans, yelling that my lips won’t last forever, and that’s exactly why I’d rather live in dreams, and I’d rather die. They call them truisms because they’re correct: the music came alive, and we all did with it.
Live performance makes up an increasingly large share of artist revenue. That’s not so much because artists are performing more as because other revenue streams are drying up, so it’s not really a good thing, but it does mean that artists rely on performance to live.
I’d argue fans rely on performance to live, too. Not in the sense of “clothe and feed themselves,” of course, but rather in that performance confronts us with an unpredictable alternative to the file-sharing, perfect-replica mp3, 21st-century mediascape. It’s true there’s something magical about a recording–the exact replication of a moment, captured forever, for all to share. But there’s no particularity, no–and I mean this–death. Performance, like life, happens once, and that’s it.
It brings a circumscribed group of people together to share something, and I’m (absurdly) reminded of the Bowie lyric from “Five Years”: “I never knew I’d need so many people.” Because performance is collective, involving audience in unexpected ways, it’s true that every member is necessary, implicit in the definition of that night: I am inseparable from the whole thing. It’s a humanizing experience to have a previously faceless voice tell the audience that his mother is at the show. How could my experience of the performance–and, now, when I listen to his catalog–not be enriched, now that I am less alienated from its reality?
Where recordings are uniform, performances diverge, and you don’t have to go full Picasso Baby or My Sharona or show that’s not a show to be jolted out of expectation. In this case, I anticipated a sleepy, dreamy sort of indie pop, and was rewarded with full-bore funk. When expectations are shattered, that’s a good thing. That’s life.