On Friday, October 19, I went down to the Showbox SoDo for what promised to be the biggest show I’d see at City Arts Fest: Ghostland Observatory. Technically, this was my second time seeing them, as I was at their performance at the 2011 Capitol Hill Block Party. But that time, I was so far back in the crowd, I couldn’t actually see them, or really appreciate the performance; I was too detached. This time, the immediacy of the experience made a huge difference; it was impossible not to be caught up in the excitement. The lineup also featured Keyboard Kid, Sports, and in a surprise last-minute substitution, Pollens instead of Gold Fields.
Sports opened with a set of New Wave-esque dance rock. After the first two songs, which were slow and moody, they announced, “We’re done with slow jams, so, grab a partner and do-si-do.” Despite that, they kept a fairly even midtempo through most of their songs that still called for slow dancing in a groovy/funky way. They really did not have as strong a dance vibe as I’d expected, though maybe the sparse and static audience was partly why. But I’m a big fan of this style of music, and really enjoyed the set.
I saw Pollens for the first time on Wednesday at Barboza, playing their scheduled City Arts Fest show. I was vaguely aware of hearing their name before, but never had an “oh, these guys” moment of recognizing one of their songs. However, the songs were memorable and distinct enough that I could be fairly sure on Friday that they were repeating their previous set—which is no fault to them, being a last-minute addition and facing a mostly different audience. And this set was well worth hearing a second time.
Pollens’ music is complex, with a lot of interplay and counterpoint in the vocals (which had up to all six members singing at times), melodies, and rhythms. Which maybe sounds like Quite Serious Music, but in fact they had an upbeat jam style that’s fun, and, importantly, they looked like they were having fun as they played. The audience certainly was getting into it and grooving along, and I enjoyed it very much as well. This is definitely a band I should get to know better.
As he was at Decibel Festival, Keyboard Kid was once again teamed with DJ Darwin for this show. Unlike Decibel Festival, this time I stayed through the whole journey of their set. And it did have the feel of a journey, starting off slow and heavy and morphing gradually through a few styles—moody triphop, edgy hiphop/garage house, faster and lighter house—toward a big finish that never quite materialized. One thing that was interesting to me was that, with the gradual changes and general lack of clear breaks—just an occasional lull for breath—it felt like it was meant to be a continuous hour of music. But it was clear from a couple of Keyboard Kid’s comments that in fact they were playing distinct songs, not just improvising freestyle. And one thing that never quite worked for me was the lack of a real climax to the set; it felt like one long build-up to a big booming dance break, but it always left me anticipating more. When they finished, I was still waiting for the “big finish”. Still, I was glad that I’d had another opportunity to experience the full trip.
By the time Ghostland Observatory came out to play, the crowd was packed and crazy, with spirits running high. Perhaps too high, as shortly into their set a scuffle broke out near me, apparently over who had “claim” to standing room along the barricade; not something I’d have expected at this show. However, the kerfuffle was quickly swept away and forgotten in the amazing performance. Dressed as an urban cowboy, front man Aaron Behrens was a dynamic presence onstage, whether showing off some slick dance moves, adding in some guitar riffs, or just posing dramatically while belting out the lyrics. Half-hidden behind banks of synthesizers and clouds of smoke, Thomas Turner was the mysterious cape-wearing wizard of synth rock, a presence felt more in the eyeball-shaking bass than seen.
Speaking of things seen and unseen, it was clear why Behrens wore dark sunglasses throughout the set, not just because of the blinding strobes but also because the banks of lasers that were firing just over our heads were close enough to hit his eyes when he was at the stage front. He probably couldn’t see the audience very well if at all, but still managed to seem very engaged, dashing about from one corner of the stage to the other in order to sing directly out to the people in front.
There’s no doubt that Ghostland Observatory’s most popular song is still “Sad Sad City,” and they did not make the audience wait through the whole show for it, breaking it out a little more than halfway through. The hyped-up audience went wild, with a few crowdsurfers, and even a member of Pollens running out onstage to dance for a bit before being hauled off by security. However, I felt the song suffered from being drawn out for the live performance; the beautiful simplicity of the chorus loses some appeal when it’s shouted so many times. Conversely, I felt the rest of the songs stood up better to “Sad Sad City” than the last time I saw Ghostland Observatory; really, that song’s almost the oddball in their catalogue. And it was also clear that though “Sad Sad City” may be the big favorite, the audience was there for the whole show, not just that one song. When I slipped out just before the encore, just before 1 AM, there was no sign that the crowd had appreciably lessened. Nor would I have left either, but I had a bus to catch—and as fate had it, I paid for that mistake by waiting a half-hour for a train to move, before finally giving up and heading back to grab a taxi. Remember next time: stay for the encore, Ghostland Observatory is worth it.