Over the past weekend at Johnny Brenda’s a trio of small pop acts with huge potential shared the stage to show off the genre’s growing indie side
Last Saturday March 23rd, at the corner of Girard Avenue and Frankford Avenue in Fishtown Johnny Brenda’s played host to the co-headlining Sky Ferreira and How To Dress Well tour. Australian trio High Highs opened as support. The group performed to a sold out crowd on the chilly weekend night. Each act showcased a different side in the evolving world of indie-pop music.
High Highs took to the stage shortly after 9 o’clock. The band’s setup was draped in strings of soft white Christmas lights. The lighting set the tone for what would be a night of intimate performances. It was a night that almost did not happen though. In between songs the band described to the half filled room how their tour bus broke down outside of New York City and they did not think they would be able to make it that night. Luckily for the crowd, not only did the band arrive to perform on time, but the near accident did not derail them at all.
High highs play a mixture of ’80s dream pop (reminiscent of Philly’s own Lockets) mixed with tones of folk and soft falsetto vocals. Reverb soaked guitars and droney, crunchy synths laid the foundation for much of the bands short 30 minute set. For such a young band, High Highs seemed to be well rehearsed. They played a number of hits in their quick set, including selections from their self-titled EP. The EP is out in the United States via Small Plates Records (cofounded by local music tastemaker Mark Schnoeveld).
The tricky thing about co-headlining tours is that each night there is only ever one real headliner. Saturday night it was Sky Ferreira. That meant that How To Dress Well played in between her and High Highs. On stage this time around just a duo comprised of vocalist Tom Krell and beatsmith/violinist Aaron Read, the two combined for the highlight of the night.
The setlist contain songs from both 2010’s debut Love Remains and 2012’s standout hit Total Loss, as well as the Just Once EP. If High Highs set the bar for a quiet, intimate concert then How To Dress Well turned it into a first date. The stage was light with a dozen or so candles and the glow from to projected visuals behind the contemporary R&B group. To say the emotion coming from the stage could be felt throughout the crowd would be an understatement.
As they went from song to song, Krell shared his love for the city to the crowd. He began his night by explaining why Johnny Brenda’s was one of his favorite venues in entire country. The crowd interaction did not stop there. Leading into each song was Krell’s back stories behind the meanings. The songs that hit him the hardest were known. Throughout the set, Krell was not afraid to show off his incredible voice. He also included a fun story of meeting singer Maxwell at his previous show in Brooklyn. He told the crowd that after the show the singer asked Krell if he wanted to come to his studio to hang out. He went on to say that night led to taking Molly and listening to Juicy J for hours.
Several times Read backed off and gave way to Krell’s a capella performances, the most memorable coming towards the end of the set as he performed an unreleased song entitled “Blue”. A tune about his brother, he explained that it was off his upcoming album. Also thrown in at the end was a medley of R. Kelly tunes. How To Dress Well finished and set the bar high for his touring counterpart. And in seemed as the turnout reflected so as well almost a quarter of the room emptying once they were finished.
After a rather lengthy set up and soundcheck, Sky Ferreira and her four piece band (five if you want to include the fog machine and it’s abundant use throughout the show) took to the stage. While the crowd was not as big, the love the fans expressed made up for it. The singer/songwriter has developed a name for herself outside of music with her acting and modeling careers. But with a self-description of music being her true passion, it was time for Ferreira to show just exactly how deep that passion ran.
Coming out donned in an altered version of one of her boyfriend’s band (DIIV) shirts, Ferreira stood behind the mic with a sense of confidence that could’ve been taken as a disinterest in performing that night. She began by saying how she had just recovered from losing her voice and it showed in her performance. However as the show went on she broke out and her energy on stage grew. As she played through songs ranging from radio friendly pop hits to fast chugged “punk” songs to an almost-country tune Ferreira showcased the range in her songwriting. Yet performance wise it was clear the songs she was most comfortable with compared to those that she wasn’t. The night ended shortly with Ferreira and company playing a rather short set for being the headliner for the night. Despite this her fans still seemed impressed with the songstress’s performance. Time can only tell when she will be back and it’s safe to say that her stage will be much larger.
London’s Django Django have been making upbeat indie dance meets weird psych tunes since 2009. Ever since meeting at Edinburgh College of Art, the four members have been crafting and shaping their sound in drummer/producer David Maclean’s East London bedroom. Three years later Maclean and company finally released the fruits of their labor to the world. In January of last year, Django Django released their debut self-titled album. Even though their debut full length record out over a year ago, it took Django Django just over a full year to give the United States a full, proper tour. Joining them for the special occasion were Minneapolis’ Night Moves.
Night Moves did not share the same experience as Django Django of gracing Philadelphia for the first time. The Minneapolis four piece recently visited the city back in January for a small show at Kung Fu Necktie. This time around they played on a much bigger stage infront of a much bigger audience. While Union Transfer was slow to fill up but about half way through their set, the room was getting close to capacity. Despite being newcomers to an audience of the size of a sold out Union Transfer, Night Moves played like seasoned veterans.
Led by the powerful vocals and entertaining stage presence in lead singer/guitarist John Pelant, the Twin Cities act blazed through their 40 minute without skipping a beat. Their sound had clear influences from ’70s acts like Neil Young and Dylan but with a modern twist and touches of MGMT-esque psych music blended together. Pelant’s smooth vocals and jangly guitar were met multiple times with harmonies from fellow members Micky Alfano and Mark Ritsema. Tune after tune, this combination produced polished, radio friendly songs. In between songs different bandmates shared stories like how each city they play at always cheers when they were that the band is from Minneapolis. They also described their last visit to Philadelphia, which included the worker at one of the corner stores tried to sell them a taser.
Once Night Moves finished playing, the long process of setting up the stage for Django Django began. For just the four of them, there was a rather elaborate stage set up. Between the stage lights, projector, keyboard world and drum set the band finally took to the stage once all of the proper sound checking had finished. The British group started the night by thanking the sold out crowd for coming out and reminding them that this was their first time playing Philadelphia. They then shared their deep love for the TLC show Trading Spaces and their goal of finding the best cheesesteak in the city.
The group had already given the city a taste of their live sound as they paid a visit to World Cafe Live for WXPN’s Free At Noon series. Hours later they continued to show the city just exactly why their debut self-titled album was so critically acclaimed. Once they played through their opening set “Hail Bop”, a slow burner full of lush harmonies, the band set the crowd crazy with dance tune after dance tune.
Songs like the single “Default”, “Love’s Dart” and “Skies Over Cairo” gave the fans plenty of material to get down to. At the same time it demonstrated just how wide-ranged their influences were. “Default” is the clear-cut Britpop gem. “Skies Over Cairo” mixes fuzzy, round synth melodies a la The Kaiser Chiefs with more worldly feel; one that Brooklyn’s Yeasayer have become famous for. They ended the set with “Silver Rays”, which mixes their own vocal harmonies with a dance beat that is reminiscent to The Rapture back in their Echoes-era. Despite all of these dance tunes, they also managed to slow things down with the mellow “Firewater” tune that features lazy, almost Old Western style acoustic guitar to it.
It was impressive seeing the young band able to not only create an array of songs that blended genres to this extent, but to also work them together into a cohesive live set. On top of all of this they played with such energy and emotion, it was almost impossible to not feed off of it. The four guys in Django Django proved to Philadelphia just what they are made of in an excellent debut show for the city of brotherly love. Now let’s just hope it doesn’t take them just as long to come back around again.