2/6/15 – The Red Room @ Cafe 939

The Red Room @ Cafe 939 is no place for spectacle. It is a place of intimacy and easygoing virtuosity; a place for din, small talk, and mutual music appreciation; and a place with a reputation for introducing its guests to the bands they now feel hipster for knowing (and loving). There, the musicians are people and the music is passionate.

Earlier this month, while the room inflated with college students, young professionals, married couples, and generally music/folk/indie-lovers, three blossoming bands prepped for pollination: a night akin to a miniature festival or a well-rehearsed concert series. The bands in question included the Western Den, Damn Tall Buildings, and Nemes (pronounced ne-miss). No band headlined per se, but rather each performed a substantial set—a rich sampling delivered nearly eye level to and mere feet away from the audience. 

Relaxed, murmuring, and eager, we waited in delightful anticipation.

The Western Den

This guitar-piano-vox duo might be what you’d expect of inspired and passionate Berklee College of Music students. Young, with stories to share, and with the musical prowess to package history in ethereal-sounding folk, the Western Den took the stage to find a humble but strong connection with the audience. They performed a set self-described as “ambient folk”—a sound stabilized with convention but brimming with ingenuity.

Creativity most often came in the form of spellbinding harmonies and unique instrumentation and arrangements. The duo was by no means alone on the stage; they’d enlisted a few friends, including a trumpeter and a violinist, to layer on additional harmonies. The music ebbed and flowed, light and intricate like a snowflake.

Highlights included “First Light” and “Carter Hall”—the latter fluid and deceitfully simple; the former consisting of tightly knit melodies, neat and engrossing. In fact, the duo shared a gently intense connection throughout the set, weaving pensive harmonies through a winding, pacing selection of songs.

Damn Tall Buildings

Then, jolt! The shift in mood from the Western Den to Damn Tall Buildings (DTB) was as pronounced as DTB’s lyrics were not. Having been soothed by the rich aura and vocals of the first act, the audience was then whacked with the concentrated bluegrass-roots ferocity of the second. Cocaine-inspired, both lyrically and musically, DTB was easy to misinterpret at first; they seemed too strong, too frantic, too red faced and heaving, but it took a mere few tunes before they won the admiration of what I can safely say was an excited and smiling crowd.

The band was made up of four quintessential roots instruments: the banjo, double bass, acoustic guitar, and fiddle. The familiar sounds melded together in a way most would recognize, but in a way few would admit to enjoy. DTB were the exception.

The technical skills of each performer were unmistakable. The fiery banjo sped through melodic and intricate solos, the double bass pounded incessantly and unwaveringly, the guitar barked sloppily but passionately, and the fiddle percussed and sang with keen timing. Musical highlights included “Nobody’s Business What I Do,” “Leavin’ You,” and “Cocaine’s Gonna Kill Me.” I wasn’t kidding about the cocaine. DTB celebrated themes of rural, poor America with sharp musicianship, creativity, and humor.

One other highlight, perhaps the highlight of the night, came mid-set. It was a rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers, cleverly hybridized with “In the Hall of the Mountain King” during an enrapturing jazz-esque solo sequence. Each time the guitar player riffed on the memorable “In the Hall” lick, he would duck, tiptoe, and stalk about the stage as if he were a preying goblin—nicely illustrating not only how funny, but also how bizarre this band really was.

Points of humor sprinkled the entire show; DTB developed several shticks, all of which seemed genuine and spontaneous, and could have passed as a comedy troupe at its most humorous moments. One such gag was the repeated line, “We’re looking for a new (insert bandmate’s instrument here) player,” which the banjo player, after a particularly fierce banjo solo, even used to ask for his own replacement. Otherwise, the juxtaposition of demeanor was a point of comedy. While the singer-guitarist hopped and howled about stage, the violist wouldn’t stop smiling and the banjo player stood slouched and near-expressionless. A sight to behold—and I haven’t even mentioned the violist’s long, winding mustache.

Nemes

Nemes was third to the stage, and initially faced some inadvertent rudeness from the audience. By this time, the first two bands had started to mingle and the easygoing atmosphere had become a casual one. Nevertheless, Nemes, a rock-indie quartet, began their acoustic set.

Their songs were full of rock-hard enthusiasm, good-music-induced cringes, and aggressive strumming patterns, all of which translated surprisingly well to the acoustic stage. “Black Stripe,” “Everest Isle,” and a cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” translated particularly well and snapped the audience’s attention back to the concert at hand. Josh Knowles, the band’s violist, stirred much of the excitement with forceful solos that overwhelmed the venue and teemed with passion.

The audience-band connection typical of such a small venue, however, wasn’t as strong as it had been before; at times Nemes felt distant, and occasionally their jokes fell flat. Thankfully, by the end, the “we’re professionals” vibe overcame the “I’m cool because I’m in a band” vibe, and Nemes left having given a solid set.

They invited everyone to the bar next door for a post-show celebration—what I can only imagine was attended by those still humming violin licks.

A Damn Good Night: Western Den, Damn Tall Buildings, and Nemes
Pros
  • Intimate and passionate showcase
  • Diverse and never quite what you'd expect
  • Mustaches on point
Cons
  • Stage humor hit or miss
8.5Overall Score

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