TVD Live: Mates of State with The Stepkids at Tractor Tavern, 6/28

Backdrops built of flowers, plug-in clouds and geometric projections took over Ballard’s Tractor Tavern last Thursday and Fright night, as Connecticut’s Mates of State, accompanied by psychedelic funk trio The Stepkids, kicked off their West coast tour with an energetic and spunky performance that quite nearly overcame the strange phobia of movement that Seattle audiences are notorious for.

When I decided to cover this show and cleared my schedule of all the nothing I had planned, I realized I actually hadn’t listened to any of MoS’ new material. And by new material, I mean their last four releases. My first instinct was to catch up, but it occurred to me that seeing them live after a nearly seven year hiatus would be considerably more interesting.

I wondered how much they had deviated from the chipper, synthesizers-having-a-slumber-party-pillow-fight sound that made songs like “Everyone Needs an Editor” and “Ha Ha” so much fun to sing to while tearing ass out of my high school’s parking lot, and was ultimately pleased to find myself nodding along to a very familiar, though more developed, Mates of State.

In my notes, I likened my abrupt exposure to the evolution of their sound to suddenly switching from VHS to DVDs, but retrospectively, I feel that going from DVD to Blu-Ray is a more apt comparison. The essence of their energy and music has maintained itself over the years and albums, but the mechanics have matured and grown more refined.

2003’s Team Boo is messier than 2008’s Re-arrange Us, both in production and tone, and while that musical adolescence comes with its own distinct variety of roguish charm, it also makes it difficult for me to listen to the entire album with my full attention. Whereas a song like “At Least I Have You,” easily one of my favorite of their newer tracks, has tighter vocals and employs the synth in a darker fashion, juxtaposing with the peppy bridges and catching the ear.

Seeing high-energy, fast-tempo bands like Mates of State is always a gamble in Seattle, because you can never be sure whether or not you’ll end up paying $15 to dance or $15 to stand with a bunch of people who are too cool to even move.

Fortunately, rhythm and beat won out, and the adorable duo were able to coax a shockingly consistent amount of participation from the crowd, opening with several songs from their more recent album, Mountaintops, and dedicating the cheerful, synth-dominated “Maracas” to Seattle, much to everyone’s enthusiastic appreciation.

Unfortunately for opening band The Stepkids, the memo that it was temporarily cool to move and/or dance and/or express any interest whatsoever wasn’t sent out early enough. Despite their stark white clothing, killer geometric light show (which nearly gave my poor Powershot a stroke) and passionate, well-practiced performance, The Stepkids were unable to break through the thick, flannel layer of Seattle cool. But where many bands falter under the uninterested gaze of Seattle’s coolest, The Stepkids played admirably, regarding the audience with humor and determination while throwing down some serious and sophisticated modern psych-funk.

Having never been very cool myself (my glasses are prescription, cigarettes make me feel sick, my hair is only messy because I forget it exists, etc.), I’m able to enjoy dancing un-ironically at concerts, so it pained me to watch the potential dance party go to waste as the projector spun bold colors over the stage and the trio lost themselves in the thick baselines and sassy vocals of songs like “Legend in My Own Mind” and “Santos and Ken”, while 90 percent of the crowd just stood around, occasionally risking a casual turn of the head to see if anyone was looking at their outfit.

It was truly disappointing to see so many people actively avoid engaging with the music they paid to be a part of, but I’m certain as The Stepkids travel down the coast with MoS, they will find an audience much more appreciative of what they are so generously offering: a very good time.

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