The two-night stand seems to be increasingly frequent in Washington, D.C., as the city inexplicably does not possess a rock venue in the 2000-ish person range. And so, the 9:30 Club and its 1,200 person capacity continues to stand-in until that niche is filled, whether by a rumored Seth Hurwitz venue down on the Southwest Waterfront, or via another enterprising soul.
Tonight is the first of two shows featuring Scottish ensemble, CHVRCHES, and their DJ opener, The Range. CHVRCHES, of course, are a buzzed-about band that has drawn all sorts of attention, the good related to their music and the bad related to Internet denizens indulging their baser instincts towards one band member in particular. The Range, on the other hand, has not yet realized the double-edged sword of notoriety. He takes the stage to a warm welcome from the approximately 1/3 full club, curiosity more than familiarity characterizing those in attendance.
It appears that he’s triggering his samples live, although, as is often the case with EDM, he might just be really good at acting. It’s not a linear performance; overall, this is less of a cohesive whole than a series of schizo moods. Those various atmospheres bounce between mid-tempo and up-tempo as James Hinton stands surrounded by two vertically aligned video screens sporadically tied into the beat, sporadically shimmering with a video of water filtered through a daguerrotype effect.
A wave of women, couples, and not heterosexual men have arrived early on a soggy spring evening. They witness a lot of knob turning that is presumably with a purpose, and while its rhythmic bursts are likeable, it seems inappropriately grouped with CHVRCHES. (Although, if you separated Lauren Mayberry from the band, the grouping would make perfect sense). At this moment, though, it seems more U Street Music Hall or art gallery than 9:30 Club. The rhythmic jumps are a bit jarring and the flow doesn’t…flow…as Hinton’s segues constantly alter the pace with short-term builds that are independent of a larger build or any mathematically natural progression. Which is to say, this isn’t a pop EDM performance but an artier version that holds more in common with the early, experimental nature of no-wave than would initially seem plausible.
He performs a track with CHVRCHES vocals, which, while clearly pandering — in a town where pandering is an art form — is also effective. And, also, this seems to be an increasingly common approach as David Guetta and others now constantly reference their peers on the same bill. He deploys hip hop vocals in what are more like song fragments than actual songs, most with redeeming value but in need of editing unless his goal is more William S. Burroughs than Jack Kerouac. Almost 45 mins to the second, his time on stage ends.
The club is fully packed for CHVRCHES. It’s immediately clear that this is a significantly evolved production from their recent tours (or even their recent Coachella performance); light and smoke set and shroud the stage, and an audience sing-a-long is audible from their opening track.
Mayberry’s — and the band’s — increased confidence and ambulatory dynamism is reciprocated by an enthusiastic crowd. Digital sounds back her angelic, analog voice. Overall, it’s quite loud but properly mixed, a significant improvement from their show at Black Cat almost a year ago. And, the production team has tastefully added a creative light show that’s flashy while remaining complementary.
What they possess in spades is crossover appeal: the crowd has become increasingly diverse, peppered with kids and adults of multiple ethnicities and various proclivities. Mayberry gives a verbal homage to an iconic D.C. music name — Ian MacKaye — a reference clearly lost on most of the crowd. She references Jem Cohen‘s documentary, Instrument, for a crowd with few who have even been to a punk show. It seems somewhat misplaced given their mass appeal, yet, not when taken in consideration of the socially conscious discourse Mayberry has embraced. But, as with Fugazi itself, the message has fewer fans than the music.
The trippy insistence of Underworld takes over during “Science/Vision,” trance-like rhythms burning their grooves into the dance floor before releasing into the bouncy anthem, “Recover.” The double-header is undoubtedly one of the night’s highlights, coupling to create a room full of people climaxing concurrently. And, it’s at this moment that it becomes clear: each time I see CHVRCHES perform, I like The Naked and Famous a bit less, seeing more brilliance and longevity in the electropop of these three Scots than in that of those Kiwi exports.
More EDM moments intersperse what are clearly well-thought-out pop compositions hand-crafted by well-trained musicians. In this sense, what they’re doing is not unlike M83. They teased an EP’s worth of songs that built anticipation for their eagerly anticipated album, which would have been a horrible sales strategy if not for how fantastic an album — an entire album — they knew they had in reserve.
Martin Doherty takes over vocals for “Under the Tide,” and perhaps improbably (given how much love there is in the room for Mayberry), the song and its “ho oh oh uh” chant-along chorus achieves what is clearly the night’s dance apex one song before the set concludes with “The Mother We Share.”
Doherty’s vocals return for the encore, a slower song in the first slot a common one for songs that the band wants to play but which do not fit into the set’s flow. They grab their audience one last time — “By the Throat” — the building banger closing their first of two nights on this stage with a proper splash. It’s the sort of song heard in a movie where the shy-guy-you’re-really-rooting-for finally summons up the courage to go after the girl. They, too, have gotten after it this rainy evening, showing an increased presence and poise on stage that indicate an understanding of their job as a headliner: it’s not just to play songs, but to entertain.