Indian Summer has taken hold as the government shutdown drones on in Washington, D.C., and residents are happily outside taking respite from disingenuous talking points and the stench of stasis. It is into that environment that London Grammar arrives, convincing sun-seekers to head to U Street Music Hall for their underground, inaugural show in the capital of the erstwhile colonies.
They’re preceded by Seattle’s Jaymes Young. It’s also his first time in the city and apparently he thinks we have a lot of hot women (oddly, he references this more than once). He starts strong, his opening song featuring an epic build. He looks really — ahem — young, wearing one of those fedoras Angelenos re-embraced a few years back. On stage he’s accompanied by a bassist and a drummer and supplemented by what appears to be pre-programmed, ambient electronica. There are moments where it appears that the bass guitar might be triggering samples, but clearly there’s something else going on most of the time. Whatever its origin, his sound is much more engaging in person (and seemingly more guitar-driven) than one might expect from his Dark Star EP. “Moondust” is a definite highlight, a crooner with a familial relation to the ambient electronica The Weeknd has inserted into R&B.
His wonderfully arranged cover of Haddaway‘s “What is Love?” is another one of the performance’s poignant moments; Young croons “Baby don’t hurt me” in a Jeff Buckley-esque mode, vocals assuming the spotlight as sparse instrumentation and a foggy electronic soundscape provide the framework. It’s solitary, assuming, and amazing; Young seems poised for bigger things.
The vocal strength of Hannah Reid is apparent from London Grammar’s opening note, the entire audience calm, quiet and situated in the palm of her hand. She adds a husky vibrato when symbolically appropriate, its power always balanced by distinct, angelic femininity. At times, she holds notes in a way strangely evocative of Jon Secada, but does so armed with vox flying somewhere between Sarah McLachlan and Florence Welch. She does this, time and again, and her audience unconsciously holds its breath until each phrase completes itself.
The three-piece is collectively attired like an early 90s Gap ad, contrasting with the minimalism and sublimity of their sound. No matter, Reid flawlessly births note after note, each bringing beauty into the world.
They’re tired, though it isn’t showing in their virtuosity, and they reflexively flatter the audience with clichéd words (“You’re amazing!“, etc.) that originate from a good place. The freshmen touring trio uses space as a chord unto itself, much like their similarly electro-infused English peers, The XX. The low-end often features a slurred and ever-present bass sound, and the high-end uses guitar minimalism in the same vein as the wildly successful sophomore trio. The primary difference, of course, being the centrality of a world-class voice that is destined to leave its indelible imprint upon the masses.
The encore brings us their incredible cover of Chris Isaak ‘s “Wicked Game,” a song so perfect in its original form that it requires a fresh approach. Their spectral version highlights the genius of the room’s sound system, and refocuses the spotlight upon their flawless virtuosity. In compositions like theirs — including the cover they’ve made their own — any mistakes would be obvious in this setting. There are none.
Throughout, a defining feature of their set is the adorable nature of a band loving the moment they’re experiencing for the first-time. They issue genuine smiles when the audience roars its approval, and seem to acknowledge the dead silence signifying rapt audience attention during the many quiet moments featured in their compositions.
At this early juncture in their career, their journey is one of discovery, both for the band itself and their American audiences. Earlier, they saw Hollywood. Today, they saw the White House. They’re disappointed that they didn’t get the chance to see Portland, their touring schedule what it was. It’s an incomplete journey, one an A&R exec would necessarily drool over as their crossover appeal takes them on a journey towards musical ubiquity.
Photos: Katherine Gaines