Black Cat was formerly a signature venue in Washington, D.C., a scene within the District’s music scene that featured great staff and sound. Over the years, management has declined to continually invest in its upkeep, and as a result, it’s now one of the most inconsistent concert experiences around. There are many reasons for the decline, but first and foremost is one the of most important aspects of a music club: the sound is increasingly inferior to the city’s other rooms.
They do fit a capacity-specific niche, though, and this particular evening they’re playing host to the Brooklyn-based St. Lucia led by the South African-born Jean-Philip Grobler. The project is another that is essentially the property of one person, friends and associates contributing to the live experience more than the entire enterprise being a team effort. To wit, Grobler notes that they’re playing with a new drummer, new, as in, they had never played together just one week ago. Which, is rather remarkable.
Grobler and his four mates take to the stage for a sold out show that is crowded, hot, young enough to not recognize the phrase, “They’ve gone plaid!” while also wearing a whole lot of…plaid. As the band begins to churn out their 80s-inspired synthpop, they’re backed by a stringy board of LED lights that are better at creating dynamic photonic geometry than illumination.
There is a lot of echo on mics, at least, that seems like a reasonable assumption. Even next to the soundboard, though, it sounds like we’re listening on AM radio. On some level that’s an enjoyable atmospheric alongside twinkly back lighting reminiscent of an 80s video, only in high def. And, on other levels, its obviously inferior and distracting as hell.
The band’s best asset is their burgeoning collection of catchy songs, the sort of songs about which Bono once said, they’ve “always existed, we only recently discovered [them].” Some hint at George Michael and some at more obscure 80s pop acts, but contemporaneously their most salient songwriting peers are M83 and Cut Copy. Together, the twelve tracks on their 2013 album When the Night formed one of the year’s best releases, worthy of listen after listen, sonic depth and catchy riffs sure to worm themselves into your dreams.
“The Night Comes Again” is one of those tracks that reflects the zeitgeist M83 achieved with their double-release, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Doubled vocals hold a steady cadence as atmospheric synths crescendo into a choral community, off-beat synth strokes offering an alternate rhythm that some of the tiny dancers down front choose to ape.
It seems a bit early to break out the standout track, “The Old House Is Gone,” even though they could trot single-worthy tracks out every couple of tracks and still formulate a pretty killer setlist. They fly the kite about as high as their spool unfurls, shifting right into the anthemic “Closer Than This,” a tight pop track with the sing-along qualities of Cut Copy. A danceable vibe again masks a wistful lyrical nature, the music providing a sensible soundtrack rather than attempting to take over entirely.
The island influences of “Wait For Love” raise the temperature, the warm vibes the band’s name evokes supplemented by the toms of Toto and paired with that ever-present singability. And really, audience interactivity is an essential component of Grobler’s songwriting. “Don’t Go Away” adheres to the theme, adding an EDM-influenced bridge that builds upon the work of the aforementioned bands while adding a component that caters quite well to the youth of today.
Grobler takes some time with the crowd, a peck of pride evident as he asks, “What do you think of my new light show?” Well…honestly, it’s not working very well in this room, and it certainly wasn’t created with mind to the types of photos that could capture the band’s live presence. At least…not in this particular setting. They move on with a pleasant, soundtrack-friendly, mid-tempo track, “All Eyes on You” before again depressing the accelerator with the aptly named “Elevate.”
While the venue’s sound is remarkably inadequate, the songwriting again shines through, if not as brightly as it should.The dancing picks up, the bond tightening between the band and those experiencing their bohemian moment for the week, unity at its high point as they shift into “Closer Than This.”
It’s here where Grobler’s vocals are at their best, their tonality fitting the track as well as any in the St. Lucia catalog. A Chaka Khan cover is an unexpected treat on multiple levels, perhaps most uniquely as the woman working the soundboard sings key parts while wearing a walkie-talkie and surveying lyrics on her phone. It’s karaoke, basically, but the kids are digging it.
Unfortunately, that memorably unique moment is followed by a train wreck of a ballad that both destroys the evening’s momentum and is summarily ignores by the obtrusively talkative audience. And herein lies a lesson for the band, one that once internalized will signal the greater maturity required in the bigger rooms…set construction matters. Playing to your audience also matters: this audience is here for dance, not romance.
Whether planned or audibled, the band tries to recapture momentum lost with “The Way You Remember Me.” It signals the end to the set, and if anything further highlights how ill-chosen their emo foray into sensitive matters of the (paper) heart was at that untimely moment.
A brief break precedes the inevitable encore, two of their best songs remaining. “September” is a fantastic dance track, albeit one ripped from the Cut Copy song book. An approximately two-minute intro raises the stakes in that repetitive but not monotonous manner that Underworld once innovated. It’s a perfect remix song, as the 5-track EP September proves. Overall, it’s a showcase of fantastic song construction, building to plateau after plateau and summitting abruptly in the hazy beauty of the heavens.
They started with When the Night‘s opening track, and complete the circle by ending with its closing track. The evocative “When the Night Falls Down” is certainly thematically appropriate, if not an immediately obvious show closer. It commences with a fat synth bass tone underlying the composition, teasing at a dance vibe without really allowing limbs to unleash themselves. But, finally, the head bobs turn into shoulder movement, the shoulder movement moves down the torso, and Grobler’s compositional clarity has one last moment.
Ultimately, St. Lucia has presented an evening of standout songs that individually showcase an alluring attention to detail. And, that primal strength is exactly why it’s so noticeable that their sound and set list didn’t receive the same attention. Their potential is sky-high, but further time and effort and seasoning is required to determine just how good of a band they will ultimately be.