Concert Review: Small Black and Oberhofer

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Brooklyn’s Oberhofer takes the stage at Washington, D.C.’s Rock and Roll Hotel at 8:12pm on a blustery cold night in Washington, D.C.. They do so without their eponymous leader, Brad Oberhofer; sources close to the frontman report him to be searching for a missing guitar. Having retrieved the prodigal instrument, he joins his bandmates a couple of minutes later and they get right to it.

The assembled show knowledge from the first chord of “Gold,”, the band leaping into its sing-songy chorus and immediately engaging the choir below. Youthful enthusiasm abounds, the partisans interested more in the cathartic vibe than its endearingly simple lyrics.

With the audience engaged, the band launches into a grungier vibe, reinforced by a hearty jump off the drum kit’s platform. Their frenetic pace doesn’t diminish their cohesion, even as genres-of-influence rapidly shift. They continue to do so as whistles take us into their third offering, “I Could Go.” A girl takes a moment to photograph another girl’s skirt, music and fashion diffusing simultaneously. Underlying guitar sounds are evocative of the 90s East Coast indie scene, peppered with distinct additions like the xylophone parts popping up everywhere the past few years (a generation after Radiohead‘s “No Surprises“).

The 4-ax attack is full and aggressive, postured proactively in case of the zombie apocalypse. Speaking of weirdness, its apparition appears in the form of verbalized “deep thoughts” (presented as inter-titles): “Do you ever wonder what it’s like to be born? Is it nice? Is it not so nice?” These are the show’s affected moments, less homage to Jim Morrison than the sort of stoner ramblings that have been occurring in half-finished basements since parents began leaving teenagers unattended after-school. Hopefully this is a phase to be outgrown, because it diminishes the whole and lacks the situational relevance of its more famous antecedents.

“Haus” is a highlight, as the guitar stylings of Porl Thompson and Johnny Marr replace the band’s grungier influences. Anthemic moments are sandwiched between whimsy and the visceral thrashing about on stage. The song’s inherent sweetness has been replaced in this iteration, its saccharine ingredients replaced by the salty impatience of familiarity. Foreplay is left behind as (a perhaps symbolic) discordance lingers, at times recalling Daydream Nation. The pacing reaches into the red, challenging the rhythm section’s dexterity. The challenge is met.

The sublime orchestration on “Heart” is most impressive, taking a Patrick Watson-ish approach and merging classical techniques effortlessly with avant garde operatic rock. Its fantastic crescendo is one that satisfies without giving satisfaction. The first track on their full-length debut, Time Capsules II, it is perhaps their most complex and complete composition. Its sophistication aims higher that of other tracks, and is represents the height of their art.

Enabled by guys in Silicon Valley garages, Brad Oberhofer forsakes the fourth wall and breaks into the crowd …. almost out the front door …. behind the bar, grabbing a sip of something before heading back to stage. He’s jumping again, his physicality restricted by limited space on both the vertical and horizontal axes. He’s learned a few things from his rock and roll forefathers. A dedication to President Jane Fonda and the Tasmanian Devil precedes “Away Frm U,” the brief sojourn into an alternate reality does nothing to stop head bobbing from developing into full-blown dancing.

Just in time for their farewell fête, they throw down a guitar line that could be channeling  Versus performing a decade ago at North Six, as the Brooklyn club was known in an earlier iteration of Williamsburg’s metamorphosis. A Weezer-ish guitar solo unveils yet another layer of 90s influences and brings their time with us to an end. The band is already fully competent: tight and well-structured, energetic and engaging. The key to their future will be songwriting; the debut album’s compositions are mostly memorable and their second full-length record — slated for a September release — must match (and hopefully exceed) the track-by-track success of their debut, balancing the desires of the artist with the demands of commerce.

Small Black takes the stage after a lengthy set-up process, and does what rarely works well for a band without a significant catalog of singles: they start with their best song, “Free at Dawn.” It’s a truly great track, reminiscent of 1980s New Wave to the extent that it makes appearances on the Simple Minds Pandora station. Atmospheric fog and diagonally directed lights add a more evolved vibe to their set, but vocals are completely buried in the mix and  New Order’s synth bass lines overwhelm the rest. So, their best song is rendered impotent by technical difficulties that inevitably accompany working with a new sound guy.

As a general rule, they offer up layered, electro smooth jams with just enough pace to supersede mid-tempo . The songs are well-written from a compositional perspective, their biggest strength also serving as their biggest weakness: most aren’t individually gripping. Instead, they serve as relatively hip background music and fit easily into their regional oeuvre. They’re the Federico Zandomeneghi of the Brooklyn scene, perfectly competent, respectable  and stylistically appropriate without rising above the genre itself.

The band presents a consistent soundscape, with few tracks rising beyond the pleasant background music of a Sundance submission. Their tracks are danceable, remixable jams, and the individual musicianship is collectively spot on, even if the AV limitations are depressing their impact. The first coherent word out of lead singer Josh Kolenik‘s lips is “reckless.” Except it isn’t, it’s actually him mouthing the lyrics and title of one of their standout songs, “Breathless.” Other than that, he could have been pontificating upon the horrors of pit bull rape or citing The Gettysburg Address whilst sashaying about stage and the audience would have been none the wiser.

As they approach the end of their time on stage, they reach into their musical quiver for “No Stranger.”  One of their best, it’s blessed by a slightly better balance in the mix and fronted with an organic vibe that meshes with the agreeable crowd now moving rhythmically like an ocean of gratitude. The improvement in balance enhances the overall experience, measurably. Rather than straining to make out what we’re hearing, we can tune into the moment and allow it to wash away our worries.

A brief encore features a mid-tempo new song with an unannounced title — or an unintelligible one, who knows what Kolenik said? —  and then a cover of The Blue Nile‘s “The Downtown Lights,” and 80s Scottish band that he proclaims to be beyond our knowledge and amongst his favorites. A strange and somewhat condescending intro, to be sure, but likely an unintentional slight from the mind of a hipster musician whose artistic output isn’t nearly as idiosyncratic as his statement would suggest.


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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.