There are too many concerts happening on any given day to wait around for your favorite band to come to town. Going to concerts should surpass fandom and singing along to songs you know. From dancing with a stranger and discovering new artists to escaping from the outside world and being moved by unheard lyrics, the worth of attending a mystery concert is high.
This column explains the phenomena of the live music experience through the shows that are happening right now. This week, I’ll explore how artists create new musical worlds through songs, staging, and performance. It’s this world-building that makes the concert experience universal. No matter what band is playing, a show provides a prescriptive escape from our daily lives. Whether you want to embrace the abstract, contemplate lyrics and instrument technique, or discover a community you never really understood, there’s a concert happening in Boston that can take you away. The War on Drugs, The Wood Brothers, Price & Vilray, Jake Blount, and Eric Nam were some of the artists to come to Boston recently whose live soundscapes took us away.
The War on Drugs and The Wood Brothers: Mesmeric Experiences
The War on Drugs took the concept of building musical landscapes to heart. Each song was a world in its own right, establishing an ebb and flow and following it in lengthy and immersive tracks. The ambience The War on Drugs created was supported by their stage setup. Six musicians populated the stage, each surrounded by their specialty instruments and stacks of amps. Looking at the stage was like looking at a machine. Pedal distorted tremolo effects and copious amounts of delay and reverb defined The War on Drugs performance on the first of their two-night residence at the House of Blues on Jan. 31. At the height of the show, as “Come to the City” morphed into “Living Proof,” Boston was the farthest thing from my mind. Entranced by the rhythm, I could have been anywhere.
I was surprised to undergo a similar spellbinding experience at a folk concert in the same venue later that week. Despite having only three band members, The Wood Brothers found a way to overload the House of Blues with aural force. Without synths or heavy equipment, the source of their mesmerizing tone was total command of their instruments. Basslines put forth by Chris Wood defied the traditional instrumentation of the upright bass in folk music. Moving up and down the neck and simultaneously playing harmonica melodies, his playing was a show of its own. Instrumentalist Jano Rix also brandished simultaneous instrumental prowess. While playing drums with his left hand and two feet, his right hand would scale the keyboard in flashing solos. Oliver Wood’s droning fingerstyle guitar playing and soulful voice anchored each song and led the trio into triumphant choruses.
The Wood Brothers created a world of emotions and passion as they vowed to not read “Postcards from Hell” or “Cry Over Nothing” anymore. They specifically taught the audience to sing along in parts during “Liza Jane,” but the crowd needed no help recalling all of their folk cry choruses. For The Wood Brothers, their mesmeric performance was not just defined by stage output but inclusion from the crowd. Singing along with the easy-to-learn, anthemic choruses made the show.
These shows represent the classic concert expectation for concert goers when they see their favorite artists — the immersion, the sing alongs, the auditory trance. But live music has so much more to offer.
Rache Price & Vilray and Jake Blount: Lyrical Antics with a Side of History
Rachel Price of Lake Street Dive and Vilray brought a classic and subtle sound to the City Winery on Feb. 19 for a rescheduled show. With Vilray on guitar plugged to a single amp and Price on vocals, the two gently serenaded a room full of music enthusiasts sipping wine at candlelit tables. Between sets they would banter together and tell the story behind the writing of each song or who it may have been about. The banter continued midsong as they altered lyrics to suit the audience or commented on the way the other was singing.
Each lyric and story was thoughtful and exuded wit. An unreleased commissioned song by Vilray entitled “Hate is the Basis of Love” exemplified the clever comedy of the show, scoring several hearty laughs from the crowd. Price took the time to praise her inspirations — like Peggy Lee — and speak about the history of their 1940s ribbon microphone, which allowed for Price’s careful crooning. An evening with Price and Vilray could not have been more different than my two nights at the House of Blues, yet both shows shared a language of music that united the audience to the music, lyrics, band, and each other.
Activist, scholar, and musician Jake Blount also made witty comments and lyrical connections with his audience at the Middle East Nightclub and Restaurant last Sunday night. With banjo in hand and backed by a three-piece string band, Blount’s genre was much different than Price and Vilray. Blount seeks to revive Black stringband music, which holds the origins of much of American folk and roots music today. Generally playing songs from oral traditions or archived records, Blount brings the past to the present with his banjo and fiddle arrangements. With fluttering, repeating folk instrumentals, Blount achieved a hypnotic effect at points in his show. The defining characteristics however were the humorous lyrics and thoughtful histories. “(When You See) Those Flying Saucers” and “You Can’t Tell The Difference When It’s Dark” were particularly comic. The story of his new single, “The Man Was Burning,” was inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharp, the rarely credited inventor of roots rock and roll, who sang spirituals in an upbeat, electric guitar backed style. Blount played a stringband version of the song Sunday night but took the time to share its history, beyond just playing the music.
Price and Vilray and Jake Blount offered alternatives to the typical, loud, music hall performance often associated with concerts. A willingness to listen and experience live performances can open up their worlds of musical history and talent.
Eric Nam: Enjoying the Fandom of Others
Eric Nam may seem out of place on this list. A K-Pop star from Atlanta who studied at Northeastern before moving to South Korea to begin a career in entertainment, his story is unique. He has recently risen to new heights of fame as K-Pop continues to take the world by storm, driven by the popularity of BTS. Eric Nam sold out the House of Blues last Monday, Feb. 21, with a line that stretched past Fenway and wrapped around the highway. His show makes this list because — despite his fame — I had never heard of Eric Nam. Discovering the world of K-Pop was different from discovering other artists live because there were so many fans!
Since I have somehow stayed outside of the K-Pop craze, I was shocked as the line to get into the show went on and on. Once inside, I watched people scream and jump at every body roll and high note. While Nam sings mostly in English, both English and Korean lyrics were shouted out by the crowd. Although I had never seen any of the bands mentioned thus far in concert, I had truly never been to a concert like Nam’s. With backup dancers and choreographed movement, backing tracks and tour merch worn on stage, his exhibition of pop was spectacular to watch.
It didn’t take many songs for me to buy in, shouting back the chorus of “Echo” and dancing as Eric commanded me to. Surrendering any of my criticism of the music or potentially cringey lyrics such as “You’re Sexy I’m Sexy,” I rode the energy of adoring fans for a show I may never have gone to other times.
See New Music Live
If this column achieves anything, I hope it will inspire you to seek out live music. Buy a ticket to see a band you’ve never heard of; go to an open mic night; attend a music festival; start a band. Not all concerts seek to give the same experience. Not all venues can provide the same experience. As I continue to explore what’s happening in Boston in live music, I’ll analyze venues, artists, genre, and ultimately try to answer what makes Boston a unique place to make music. Until then, here’s what I can recommend you see:
Talisk at Club Passim, March 2nd
— Staff writer Jacob R. Jimenez can be reached at email@example.com.