Sundays are the Mondays of rock n’ roll.
Bear Mountain and Young Empires had this working against them at their May 1st show at Vinyl. That, and it was the first time either of the Canadian songsmiths had ever performed in Atlanta. There was no local opener. Oh, and it was raining.
It takes more than just talent to rally an audience on a Sunday night, especially under such circumstances.
Young Empires sauntered up to their instruments on stage with a casualness that bordered on languor, each dressed head-to-toe in black. The performance that followed was predictably apathetic – little more than an aggrandized, open-door band practice.
Their execution was far from shoddy. Young Empires played the way any road-savvy band would: like a well-oiled machine. Their set was air-tight; each vocal leap, bass line and guitar riff executed mechanically. They were on autopilot.
The real star of their set was by far drummer Taylor Hill. Hill is the most recent addition to Empires, joining their ranks straight from the neo-soul, festival-circuit darlings Fitz and the Tantrums. Hill’s precision was equal parts mechanical and heartfelt. His long limbs pulsed with fervor across his glittery kit, pushing each song to its limit.
Frontman Matthew Vlahovich is fond of vocal fillers, “Oh, oh, oh”’s that soar and bound, putting his musical range to the test without offering any substance to the songs themselves. This lyrical tactic recurred throughout their set. Before launching into the fast-paced anthemic, “Ghosts,” Vlahovich cautioned, “We’ll see how this one goes, we had kind of a late one last night in Charlotte.” He alluded to some ambitious vocal leaps in the refrain of the song. The disclaimer proved to be unnecessary.
Despite Vlahovich’s precision (the whole band’s for that matter) Young Empires’ performance fell flat with the dozen or so people in the audience, who remained seated 20 feet back from the stage. Their toes tapped against the legs of their chairs as they sipped on their drinks. Not even the rib-shaking beckoning bass line of their single “Mercy” could coerce the onlookers out of their chairs.
Things did not feel auspicious for Bear Mountain. Though Young Empires left the stage promising a killer performance from their tourmates, their performance was so disingenuous it was hard to be optimistic. Luckily, everyone was in for a pleasant surprise.
Bear Mountain’s reputation is hinged on their ebullient live performances. In Vancouver their name was made for themselves long before their danceable, synth-driven debut, XO, hit the record stores in May 2013. Since starting off as a duo of Ian Bevis (bass, vocals) and Kyle Statham (guitar) that same year, they’ve opened for international acts such as Bloc Party, Hot Chip and MS MR. Since then, the group has rounded out to a quartet, bringing Bevis’ twin brother Greg into the fold on drums as well as Kenji Rodriguez on synths and keys. They’ve since made their rounds on the festival circuit, with performances at Lollapalooza, the Governor’s Ball and Austin City Limits under their belts.
Still, Vinyl on a rainy Sunday evening is a very different setting from any of those shows, and I was curious to see how the quartet’s unique blend of live and electronic instrumentation would manifest on an intimate stage to a much smaller turnout.
The crowd seemed to multiply miraculously between the two sets. As Bear Mountain took to the stage, audience members crawled out of the woodwork like pilgrims on their final steps of a journey to Bodh Gaya. By the second song, a few dozen people flanked the stage and Bear Mountain was exuberantly throwing themselves into their jazzy, frolicking singles “Hopeful,” “Two Step” and “Congo.”
Stratham and Ian Bevis riffed off of one another joyously, dancing back and forth with one another during solo moments and instrumental tracks. Rodriguez’s animations projected onto 4 triangular canvases behind them while he mixed behind a bevy of computer screens. (The synth player’s background is in motion graphics, and his creative aesthetic has been fully incorporated into Bear Mountain’s live performances in tremendous ways.) An audience that seemed comprised of timid folks with two left feet during Young Empires’ set transformed into a jubilant kinetic mess on Vinyl’s floor. Bear Mountain radiated.
If there was one disparity between the two acts, it was avidity. Looking beyond the pageantry of Bear Mountain’s projections or Young Empire’s coloraturas, there was an imbalance of enthusiasm. With luck, Bear Mountain’s infectious nature will rub off on their tourmates. There’s no doubt in my mind that Bear Mountain will continue to make a name for themselves and at some point return to Atlanta, hopefully at a larger venue that plays a bit more to their prowess. (*Cough*Shaky Beats*Cough*) When they do inevitably return, let’s make sure we’ve got our dancing shoes on.