Chain Gang of 1974
July 9, 2011
@ Great American Music Hall
Better than: Staying in.
Call it unchillwave, maybe, or perhaps you'd better just call it "dance music" -- because aside from a few nods to pop convention (live vocals and a soaring saxophone solo) Washed Out, the prince of that icky semigenre known as chillwave, turned his latest Great American Music Hall show into a soaring, ecstatic stompfest. It was Saturday night, your hipster friends where there along with your pricily coiffed co-worker from the Marina, the place was sold out, and whatever the vibes, chill is not the word.
This was a good thing. Washed Out's Ernest Greene was just days from Tuesday's release of Within and Without, a Sub Pop debut that sees him taking chillwave staples -- chewy synth melodies, huge pulsing beats -- and upgrading them into full-on songs, with, like, other musicians and stuff. His stage at Great American was filled with three keyboards, an electronic drum setup, an actual drum kit, and live performers that included a bass player and a saxman. And -- thank god -- Greene led the proceedings like an actual musician instead of a synth-amassing shut-in, bounding about the stage, hyping up the crowd, switching among instruments, and generally having a good time. It was a very short set -- 10 songs by our count -- but one that took the veil off of the over-reverbed modus operandi of the budget dance-pop of our time.
The effect was surprisingly powerful. More low-key numbers, like "Echoes" and "Soft" from the new album, came through with a slow-jam sexiness that we didn't know they had -- especially since they aren't slow. For "Soft," especially, Washed Out built a silk palace of seduction over a throbbing bass engine, making one of the highlights of the night. Big hit (and Portlandia theme song) "Feel It All Around" got the close-the-blinds-and-get-on-the-bed treatment as well, with an actual saxophone solo transporting it from buzzy club banger to classy come-on. Greene's more low-key numbers felt more convincing and less trite than the louder, brassier ones, but all of them inspired a kind of frantic bounce on the Great American Music Hall floor (except for the one chick near us who was apparently transported to full-on raver-waving-arms obliviousness by the end).
Greene sang throughout the set, mostly without the kinds of drawling, atmospheric effects that can nullify chillwave vocals -- and it sounded good. He also carried around an iPad the whole time, leaving it on top of whatever instrument he was playing, which we are less able to explain. However he did it, though, Greene faced the test of bringing his headphone-and-car-friendly sound to a clublike atmosphere -- and by the end on Saturday, there was little doubt that he succeeded.
Which is more than we can say for the second opener, Class Actress, whose cheesy '80s swoops and lurid posturing threatened to drive us out of the room before the headliner even made it onstage. The duo's set was a disappointment especially after first opener Chain Gang of 1974, which, despite an awkward name, played furious dance-rock to a small crowd like it owned the place -- singer jumping into crowd with microphone by the second song -- and maybe deserved to by the end.
Personal bias(es): Too many relevant ones to list here, although Washed Out proved that I can be easily talked out of them with energy, bass, and saxophone. As long as we're not talking about a girl hopping up and down in high heels to Drum Machine 101 and playing striptease with her overlarge white dress shirt while utterly failing to sing (aka Class Actress).
Can you beat the P.A.?: Britt Govea of FolkYeah was on the decks between the first two sets, spinning a mix of Krautrock, new-old-wave (aka Wild Nothing), and other things I didn't write down but loved. Then, before Washed Out, the house soundman (I believe) played two early-'90s dance songs no one should forget: "Show Me Love," by Robin S., and "Rhythm Is a Dancer," by Snap!. Thank you, whoever you are, for reminding me that these staples of my childhood radio listening still exist.