When it comes to live music there are some bands that just 'get it'. Whether through superior musicianship, arrangement, sheer power of performance or some mix of all three a band will usually reveal early on if it's going to throw down with hot pyromantic fire or deliver something far more tepid and forgettable. There's a certain purity of sound, a clarity of mission, a transformative, magnetic rightness that drips like sweat from every pore.
On March 20 the Mercury Lounge was lucky enough to hose two such acts. Arriving freshly from the marathon of the SXSW music festival both Numbers and Letters and Admiral Fallow turned in wonderfully beautiful sets. The former spoke in tones of brooding, bluesy Americana while the latter delivered disarmingly accented Scottish folk.
The slow pace and frequent repetition of Numbers and Letters is not usually something I enjoy but frontwoman Katie Hasty made me a believer from the moment she opened her mouth. It wasn't her affable Midwestern charm that changed my mind (though the fact that she gave away home-made cookies didn't hurt) but more the unwavering conviction with which she sang. In front of the band's simple yet well-played melodies she projected absolutely everything she had in her. She reached down deep and poured emotion not just from her lips but from her heart, her guts, the tips of her fingers and the soles of her feet. At one point the band faded back leaving her alone, supported only by her guitar and microphone stand; a devastating elemental force of yearning and heartbreak capturing every ear in the room. She even skillfully tackled Tom Waits' Chocolate Jesus.
Lesser groups would be worried about following such a performance. Thankfully Admiral Fallow is no lesser group. The Scots took the stage loose and smiling before launching into a set of pure, humble excellence. Lush, rolling melodies joined driving rhythms to push wave after wave of unassuming yet poignant snapshots of everyday life. Minute details were thrown into sharp relief as perfect expressions of jubilation, hope and yearning swirled together with six players on stage effortlessly moving as one. Each note, each strum, each breath was by itself only gently moving, but taken as a whole the music was tangible, thick, and wildly evocative. The group ran through it's entire catalog (including an Elbow cover) in its set + encore displaying a wide breadth of feeling that had every face smiling, every toe tapping and, occasionally, every eye watering.
And then, the next night, they did it again at The Way Station in Brooklyn. In a much more low key atmosphere, in front of a smaller yet similarly devoted crowd, on a Monday night two days before they were to head back to the UK Admiral Fallow came through once again with an achingly personal performance - lightened by frontman Louis Abbott's self-effacing charm. The venue was far more low-key and homey than at Mercury and the group, eschewing most of its drum kit and the lion's share of its amplification, proved that while greatness doesn't necessarily require volume it always, always, always demands passion. Thankfully it seems that passion is something this group is always able and willing to give.