I was glad Julia Brown opened up the night because I got to watch them capture all those fashionably late attendees trickling into Metro Gallery from off the street. Very few guests made a beeline for the bar or the bathroom or that super comfy couch near the merch tables, as they were immediately drawn in like I was by both new and familiar songs performed in a stripped down, honest manner by only Sam Ray and Caroline White.
They had an electric guitar, Caroline’s viola, and an appropriately cute harmonium with some flowers equipped above the keys. They opened with ‘Abby’s Song,’ a track from an upcoming release that I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about at all, so I won’t (but it rules). Sam and Caroline’s harmonies were the strongest parts of their set; I don’t think there was a moment throughout the half hour where they weren’t in each other’s groove.
Over the course of the set, they traded off instruments and had tiny conversations with one another (sometimes while playing) and with us in the crowd. They gave us “Virginia,” and, “I Was My Own Favorite T.V. Show,” (from their first release, To Be Close To You, as if you didn’t already know) and newer songs like “Bloom,” a strange pop song cast in a perpetually folksy rhythm. “We learned this today,” Sam told us right before playing “Bloom,” and gave Caroline directions as they played the song, a detail that lends itself to why Julia Brown, in any form, is fun to see and listen to. There’s accessibility and realness in their songs, but there’s also a distinct personality attached to them that when performing a show it’s less a conventional performance and more like a hangout session.
Julia Brown wasn’t the only stripped-down duo of the evening, with Other Colors coming on second. They played a cozy acoustic set with just two acoustic guitars and a keyboard. It was fun to see them play without their usual drum loops, swirling electric guitars and deep bass on songs like “Dark Things,” and, “First World Problem” (from Free Thoughts, released last year), but it left a little to be desired, if only because their full sound is so powerful that I wanted more of it. They maintained an upbeat, starry pop form with their soft, distant vocal inflections and pensive melodies. What I like most about Other Colors is their exploitation of anything visceral as a means of making grounded, complex music, and their controlled performance convinced me a little more of my own theory.
Soft Cat. There shouldn’t be any surprises here – they killed it. It was my first time seeing them live and it turns out that I was very lucky. “This is a very sad day,” said Neil Sanzgiri towards the end of the set, explaining that this would be their last show with cellist Kate Barutha, who is moving to Chicago. From the sounds and looks of their performance, I think it’s reasonable to suggest she will be sorely missed, as the dynamic between her and Neil was incredible. They traded off taking the lead in some parts of their songs, with the cello weaving quickly back and forth between bright notes as Neil’s persistent acoustic rhythms held the ensemble together (which included another lead guitar and violin). In songs like “New Waltz,” or, “When It Breaks,” Soft Cat modestly shows off their prowess at crafting warm, toe-tapping folk hooks and being able to arrange such compositions thoughtfully. As I took notes during their performance of “Goldmines,” Sam (from Julia Brown) planted himself next to me, whispering, “They’re so fucking good.” And I was way too impressed with the spectacle before me to disagree.
Mutual Benefit drew the curtain on the evening, in its current incarnation as four members. The lineup is constantly shifting around frontman Jordan Lee, who has often found himself performing solo, looping delicate guitars, keys and vocals that wistfully meander for a while before sneaking to an end. That, of course, was all before Lee released the cripplingly gorgeous, “Love’s Crushing Diamond,” whose intricate orchestration demands a more elaborate live approach. The full band treatment also fared well for songs from Mutual Benefit’s earlier releases, such as “I saw the sea,” and “The Cowboy’s Prayer,” whose already-stunning arrangements found themselves elevated to full-blown otherworldly status when supported by the full ensemble.
They opened with “Strong River,” a serene piece that spends most of its time building a dream-like motley of sound to its near-absolute limit before fading down into a sweetly sung verse by Lee. Later songs featured provocative synth guiding the beat as slick, surfy guitars remain on the sidelines, building slowly as emotionally reinforced vocals echo through the venue. Their percussion was steadily on point throughout, the drum kit outfitted with chimes, hand drums, and that broken crash cymbal everyone has laying around but never thinks to put to good use. Like the three other bands of the evening, Mutual Benefit has a gifted understanding of their craft and knows just how to engage us with it in a charming way. “Baltimore’s the best city,” Jordan said repeatedly throughout the night. Maybe he was just saying it, but even if so, I don’t care. I hope they come back soon.