Having recently reviewed Here We Go Magic’s proggy The January EP, I went into this show wondering a couple things: would they be able to reproduce the EP’s intricacies live, and more importantly, would it be any fun? The show ended up surprising me pleasantly, making my original concerns irrelevant.
Opening the show was AroarA, a duo of Andrew Whiteman (Apostle of Hustle, Broken Social Scene) and vocalist Ariel Engle. They came onstage and started playing to the sparse crowd with no introduction, Whiteman dressed in a white shirt and tie and Engle in a black dress. Their sound was akin to a folkier version of The Kills with the bluesy vocals and cigar box banjo of Engle complementing the nylon string guitar of Whiteman. In addition to their obvious folk and blues background, the sampled loops they played displayed Middle-eastern influenced polyrhythms, and Whiteman played through an assortment of guitar effects pedals. Three songs into the set, Whiteman said that they would be playing music accompanying the poems of Alice Notley from her book In the Pines and set his guitar down. The sampler wasn’t loud enough, and his voice, while capable, didn’t have the same character as Engle’s when he took the lead. He seemed uncomfortably exposed without his guitar, and he started doing an awkward squatting dance. This was the only misstep of the evening, though, as they quickly recovered and went on to play the best songs of their set.
After a short break, during which I heard syncopated clapping coming from the green room for several minutes, Here We Go Magic came onstage and started vamping to a jazzy drum beat as they tuned and sound checked. The loose focus they had as they played and the way they smiled at each other led me to think they were improvising, but after five minutes or so, lead singer Luke Temple started singing, and it was clear that this was a long lead-in to a song.
This casual, familiar chemistry between the band members characterized their set, something under-represented on their studio albums. While many people think jamming means wankish guitar solos, the set was short on instrumental pyrotechnics. Instead the band members proved themselves to be gifted musicians in the way they played off one another and fluidly transitioned between songs. Early into their set, they explained that their keyboardist had left the tour due to a family emergency, and they invited the members of AroarA up to fill in. Whiteman and Engle had changed out of their more formal attire and didn’t miss a beat as they sat in with the rest of the band, Engle singing while Whiteman played keyboards.
Throughout the set, Engle and Here We Go Magic bassist Jennifer Turner traded vocal lines, sometimes in a hypnotic contrapuntal fashion. The crowd responded well to the performance, dancing the entire set to the band’s breezy take on the jazzier side of classic rock. It’s not easy to get people to dance to a quick 6/4 beat, as they did for one song. The probable highlight was the band’s poppiest tune, “Collector,” the arpeggiated guitar lines whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
Interestingly, the band didn’t play any songs from their just-released EP, the January EP, a collection of outtakes from their sophomore LP Pigeons. The interplay between the band and the audience climaxed during the last song of their encore as an abrupt transition left the audience stomping and clapping loudly on the beat while the band jammed polyrhythmically, Andrew Whiteman banging on a beer bottle. The last song of their pre-encore set swelled to a thunderous single-chord drone, then unraveled into cacophony and died out slowly while a propulsive drum beat pounded on. Here We Go Magic proved that they are the rare type of band that can make intricate, layered pop music in the studio and also please a crowd with their charismatic improvisations.