This past weekend here in San Francisco marked the unofficial start to “summer” as the fog starts to dissipate more regularly and the sun starts staying around longer into the evening before it sets. This made for a perfect night for our new contributor, Kati Kallins, to get out on the town and check out an up-and-coming night of music hosted by Popscene. Read on for her first show review on the site and one of the best rock n’ roll “us-ie”‘s you’ll ever see. —Editor
A warm and wistful evening followed us down Page Street towards the neighborhood indie watering hole and venue of the Rickshaw Stop. Our forgotten jackets bounced limply off our purses as we clutched road sodas and descended into Hayes Valley. Restaurant patios we passed by were filled with laughing and intoxicated patrons, reveling in the rare warm evening that San Franciscans only taste on occasion. The crowd outside the Rickshaw was buzzing with energy from end of week celebrations and the unusually warm weather. Inside the venue folks were lounging on benches or leaning against artwork as they nursed drinks and waited for the Popscene show to start. As I surveyed the crowd I was surprised to see a more diverse and eclectic group than normal. Audience members ranged from college students to baby boomers; including the usual token hipsters but also a likely Burning Man camp who had brought a dozen light-up gummy bear toys to wave around the dance floor. At first glance I was delighted by the gender ratios laid out before me, until I realized that many of these men were more interested in each other than the music show before us.
Soon after we arrived the opening act began – a local electro-punk band called The Frail. The baby-faced front man, Daniel Lannon, danced onto the stage in a tight black vest and promptly announced that they had just driven here straight from Las Vegas so they were ready to party! Daniel’s smooth tone and vocal range continued to lead a spirited and entertaining performance by the entire group. The band’s earnest lyrics and jazzy baseline reminded me of what the Killers might have sounded like if they had become popular during 2014’s current disco dance revival. With catchy melodies and song lyrics about love’s life lessons they seemed hooked on a reliable formula that was entertaining for the entire crowd. As all first night openers know, it can be hard to fill a room with energy and sound when it is only half filled to begin with, so with this crutch in mind I felt that they brought an intense amount of energy to the Rickshaw and the audience was more than happy to dance along with them. As the group matures and play more venues I’m sure we will see them become more polished and refine their live set so it can match the large stage presence of their sound.
The second act of the night was a new personal favorite of mine, Toronto-based singer Lowell. On her album she pairs hypnotic pop rock lyrics with intense distorted guitar riffs and lighter sounds like bells, which is an intriguing balance of music that is both feminine and masculine from different angles. Having just visited Toronto in August, I had a adopted a new soft spot for the Canadian metropolis and so I was even more predisposed to become enchanted by Lowell – a young blond minx adorning a neon leotard and tasseled dress who batted her fake eyelashes provocatively at the crowd all night. But like many new indie artists, the show she brought to the Rickshaw stage was much more raw and engaging than what her album had predisposed me for.
Lowell’s recorded sound is an endearing approach to the punk aesthetic – both honest and alluring, much like if Zooey Deschanel was reincarnated as a Canadian Rockstar. But with the creative license of a live set to be delivered, Lowell bounded onto the Rickshaw Stop stage in a flurry of power woman rock that blew away my expectations. Her voice was raw and full of force, sometimes reminding me of the commanding Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. As the concert continued it was revealed that she was still very much a young women and her lyrics were a catalogue of vulnerability and turbulent bouts that she discovered enroute to adulthood.
At times Lowell’s vocals felt a bit too punk-heavy when cast against her small blonde frame that seemed more disposed for the pop sound of her album. But it the end it was well received by her fans, and she continued to endear the audience to her prose. A few times she peppered her performance with sloshy but excited outbursts between songs, a behavior that reminded me of how Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham’s character from Girls) would perform if she was fronting a rock band with her token out-loud and quirky cute style. Towards the end of the show she finally cemented her relationship with the audience by jumping off the stage into the crowd. Her punk rock theatrics continued as she proceed to piggyback a fan and finish crooning her ballad from this perch. Later in the night I would learn that her punk rock attitude was no act, but rather an irreverent behavior that she publicized openly, even during an “us-ie” we took together (see below).
As the set finished Lowell slowed her dancing a bit to catch her breath and as she slowly looked up from the microphone towards the crowd her face shown in a dazzingly mirage of sweat and a full-faced grin. It was clear that she was set on a path to fully and completely exhaust herself with creative expression tonight, and we were the recipients of such passion and dedication. Not one ounce of sweat nor one pint of beer would be left on stage when she was through with us.
After that emotional rollercoaster of a set the audience rehydrated and stood poised on the dance floor, ready to be swept away by the enticing and chiseled bandmates of Monarchy. Soon enough, blue fog cascaded off the stage and seeped into the crowd as the wide-eyed audience stared back into the blue mist, utterly transfixed on the four masked men of Monarchy that soon stood before them. Adorning black and white face masks this UK group of electro pop-rockers quickly won over Friday’s crowd. With a track record of remixes with Ellie Golding, Lada Gaga, and Kylie Minogue, it is no wonder that this four year old band quickly captivated the Rickshaw Stop with their unique fusion of synth-heavy bass rock and melodic electronica ballads.
The setlist included many songs from their new 2014 album, Almost Human. These tunes showcased the soft and trance-tinged voice of lead singer, Ra Black, backed up by a wide genre of melodies including – guitar riffs reminiscent of the Strokes, that dipped in energy to reveal soft pop narratives similar to James Blake’s robotic twin, only to build into anthemic dance beats on par with Simian Mobile Disco. To be sure, the toes were a tappin’ throughout Rickshaw Stop, not one asymmetrical haircut was left un-swooshed.
Monarchy’s name, an obvious homage to their home country’s colonial history, was a welcome surprise to the American crowd who had been preparing for Columbus Day by seeking out new white men to idolize. Dressed in black jumpsuits or tailored suit jackets the band members played drums, guitar, and keyboard in a refreshingly ‘instrument-heavy” electronic set whose vibrations could be felt on the sidewalk outside.
The crowd sighed collectively when the band’s set eventually came to a close and we were forced to realize that we had become junkies for their special sauce of hip dance beats and suave Zorro-esque stage presence. Yet the biggest surprise was just about to drop. For Monarchy’s encore set they spun a unique angle that truly showcased the band’s musical versatility and innate understanding of their fanbase when they played a ground-splitting cover of “Lithium” by Nirvana. In about five minutes flat they had taken their disco dancin’, bass-thumping crowd base and turned us into a sweaty, 90’s grunge hall. This surprising jump delighted and enraptured the crowd to no end. We were officially putty in their hands, ready to be modeled into whatever genre of fanbase they were ready to entertain. The set ended with a sweaty mess of jumping, headbanging and screaming.
In the end it was a perfect conclusion to the Popscene lineup that included a diverse swath of electro-rock bands; paying tribute to one of the reluctant fathers of rock and roll in Kurt Cobain seemed oddly fitting.