As a space heater warmed up the Kilby garage, crowd-pleasing local opener The Heavens and the Earth (aka producer Matt McMurray) came onstage behind an impressive array of electronics hooked together with a grippe of colorful cables. As he started playing a whooshing synth pad, I anticipated a set of Tangerine Dream worship. Then he hit the crowd with a beat and got everyone moving. The first song sampled a funk slap bass line and live drums while he played runs on a Moog, bridging an unspoken divide in electronic music by combining arpeggiated analog synth sounds reminiscent of electronic music pioneers like Kraftwerk with a four-on-the-floor disco beat meant for dancing. The result worked like a charm, and the crowd cheered and danced as each heavy beat dropped.
Thoroughly warmed up, the crowd was ready for touring support Class Actress. With a minimal stage set-up—a drum machine, a couple of keyboards, and a microphone—their well-crafted synth-pop tunes paid homage to 80s OGs like Depeche Mode. Their fashion was hipster fabulous; the keyboardist wore thick-framed glasses and a neon hat, and singer-songwriter Elizabeth Harper wore a fake fur coat. The songs were uniformly catchy and danceable, and she appeared to be trying to channel Karen O, especially on one tender break-up jam, but the performance lacked charisma and dynamics. Nevertheless, the crowd was into it. The most energetic song was their last, when a member of Small Black joined them on bass.
Small Black came onstage after a tedious sound check, presumably missed because they arrived late to the venue. A good portion of the crowd had filtered out by the time Small Black went on, possibly due to the sound check, or because The Heavens and the Earth appeared to be a pretty big draw. While sharing a similar sound with Class Actress, the full band treatment set Small Black apart. Beginning their existence as a duo, they recently expanded to a four-piece by adding a bassist and a drummer. The live drums were sparsely mic’ed and mixed low, however; the drum machine propelled the songs. Throughout their set singer Josh Kolenik bobbed his head with mic in hand when he wasn’t playing keys or triggering samples, and the bassist struck arena rock poses. They fed off the energy of the crowd, whom they thanked repeatedly during their set. Kolenik also shouted out the Utah Jazz, offering his observation from Twitter that fans who are into the Jazz are really into the Jazz. A fan in the front wearing a Jazz sweatshirt loved that. While keyboards and samplers carry the stigma of being cold or impersonal, Small Black rocked hard and gave their music a physical presence without any guitars.
Despite the similarity of the sound of the songs, their set flowed well due to the build-ups in most of the songs, and the crowd moved to the beats throughout. While dance music is typically associated with living in the moment and forgetting one’s worries, Small Black’s songs were infused with a sense of nostalgia, whether it was the sentimental chords or the tape deck-recalling wow and flutter of their synths. It’s a testament to the strength of the material from their new album, which they wrote considering how it would play live, that their most recognizable hit “Despicable Dogs” wasn’t the highlight of the show. “New Chain,” the title song from their latest album, made a big splash, as did recent single “Search Party.” In lieu of an encore, disallowed because it was already 11:00 pm, the band joined in a sweaty hug-fest initiated by a bunch of guys in the front row. Apparently nostalgia, dancing and masterful synth-pop can bring strangers together.