To be honest—I went to the sold-out Bear in Heaven show at the intimate Black Cat Backstage last Tuesday because I am a huge fan of second opener Blouse. Nevertheless, I left a convert and bemoan my previous nonchalance. Apologies, kisses, etc.
I became familiar with Blouse last year when vocalist/guitarist Charlie Hilton and bassist Patrick Adams shared a couple of touching stories with us during our Captured Tracks Spotlight week. The Portland trio, which also includes producer and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Portrait, released their self-titled debut last year on the prestigious Brooklyn-based independent label, along with a single for “Into Black” b/w “Firestarter.” They have also released a 7″ single for “Shadows” on the powerhouse Sub Pop label.
On stage, Hilton and Adams, sans Portrait, are joined by drummer Paul Roper and keyboardist (I must resist the urge to say “synth chic”) Misty Marie. Trio in studio, quartet on tour; get it? This particular night, they make ethereal dream-pop sung angelically by the lovely Hilton, as she plays a naughtily Mustang-cherry-red guitar.
Their brief seven-song set during their first time playing DC included Marie’s haunting keyboard riffs during the bass-driven “They Always Fly Away” and “Fountain in Rewind,” a blatantly ’80s nostalgic, lush escape of a song. As Hilton sings “High tide, into my eyes/ I’m like a fountain, but in rewind,” the familiar lyrics clichély wash over me like the wave they describe. After their performance, photographer and DC Editor Jenn Bress remarked that the drums were a bit loud, at times drowning out Hilton’s [waif-life] vocals, to which I countered, “I like them loud,” especially during “Firestarter.” Predictably and satisfyingly, Blouse ended the set with “Into Black,” the obvious crowd favorite, recognized at once with excited gasps and pleased swaying.
Bear in Heaven, a trio who hail from Brooklyn, reminded me of another Brooklyn band I’ve been fortunate enough to recently see at Bowery Ballroom, Tanlines, in that while I found their newest album I Love You, It’s Cool pleasant enough, it was their live show that impressed me with its animation and vigor, a fortunate surprise. Energetic and clean-shaven (he often has a beard, I am told) vocalist/keyboardist/sometimes-bassist John Philpot, guitarist/bassist Adam Wills, and drummer Joe Stickney stood and sat in front of a hazy fog illuminated by vertical multicolored backlights. A bit melodramatic? Sure. Fantastic, anyway? Yes, please.
The three-piece was formerly a four-piece, but bassist Sadek Bazarra left last year. Nonetheless, the sound was full and bright, with a friend telling me that he’s seen them four times, and “they have never sounded tighter.” Philpot is not an ingenue, having started Bear in Heaven in 2003, and the pointed stances and confident demeanor of the front man speak to a developing charisma that aptly captures an audience’s attention. Philpot spends quite a bit of the performance without instrument, at times working the keys or briefly picking up a bass, but mostly grabbing the mic, leaning on the stand as an extension of his body.
I have heard them called everything from shoegaze-influenced, chillwave-esque, synth-pop or synth-rock, to psych rock, to krautrock, and they are, in fact, all of the above, a primal orgy of usually conflicted genres and microgenres. Having listened to their three studio albums, you can see the evolution from the very kraut-y, psychedelic Red Bloom of the Boom to the well-received pop tendencies of Beast Rest Forth Mouth to the synthy I Love You, It’s Cool, and you can hear these influences so perfectly live, the linear-sounding percussion driving a set as equally sentimental of the ’80s as Blouse’s beforehand.
Jenn remarked that the set progressed remarkably well to a climax, and I agree, with earlier songs including the opening track from I Love You, “Idle Heart,” and “You Do You” from Beast (of 2010 Super Bowl Pregame Show fame) progressing to “Cool Light” from I Love You, during which the song was vaulted to a crescendo by the audience’s clapping. Philpot later jokes before “Lovesick Teenagers” that he’d like the air conditioning turned off. He is met with applause because we are all a sweaty “Wholehearted Mess,” which was played for the final encore song, after my favorite from the new album, “Kiss Me Crazy.”
Earlier, Philpot introduces “Sinful Nature” from I Love You as, “We’re rocking a bunch of new shit tonight from our new album,” and this new song continues the gradual trend from their ambient psych rock roots to… the shoegazey synths of their future? Time will tell.
I was relieved to find that first opener Doldrums was not in fact, the American Doldrums linked on the venue’s line-up, who have apparently not released an album since 1999, but in fact the Canadian Doldrums, whose cover of Portishead’s “Chase the Tear” was selected as the B-side to Portishead’s release of the song’s 12″ single (originally released for Amnesty International on International Human Rights Day). I’d suspected this was the case since Doldrums have toured with Unknown Mortal Orchestra before, for which Blouse’s Jacob Portrait plays bass.
A bleach-haired Airick Woodhead was joined on stage by a mic, some knobs, and a drum machine played by another (brunette) shaggy-haired youth, perhaps his brother Daniel? (They both played in the now-defunct Spiral Beach with Austra’s Dorian Wolf.) I was glad to catch the couple of songs that I did—is it just me, or do shows start earlier lately?—including a space drone-y number, then the Portishead cover played last. You could feel the duo’s experimental, tribal beats, so loud you could hear them clearly from Red Room, and in my opinion, this was actually quite a pleasing thing. Jenn was there for the start of the show and texted me simply, “This is awesome.”
Back to my original story. I went to this show because I fell in love with Blouse during our label spotlight. During that week, Patrick Adams had shared a sweet story about his mom and the soundtrack to La Bamba, and Charlie Hilton had shared thoughts about the records her dad had released with his band Jiva (who toured with Fleetwood Mac), of George Harrison’s label Dark Horse. Hilton wrote,
As I look at the Dark Horse record now, my shirtless dad, standing proudly in the 1975 desert, his tan bell-bottoms almost covering his bare feet, his hair frozen in the breeze, a full moon above his shoulder—he looks right back as if there were no decades between us. To me, his expression is like a gentle dare.
I’m pretty sure that the parents of every musician on that stage last Tuesday night must be proud.
We would like to take a second to thank the kind staff at the Black Cat, who returned Jenn’s iPhone, which she had set down while fiddling with her camera and then tearily thought was stolen when she could not find it. Thank you!
Photos by Jenn Bress
Bear in Heaven