There are nights when the openers are openers; there are nights when the openers steal the show.
Tuesday night’s stacked lineup at Rickshaw Stop could’ve gone either way. During local one-man act Yalls, we found that audience members were either here for Small Black or for Snowmine, exclusively. Despite the two Brooklyn-based bands being on a nationwide tour, Small Black fans had no idea who the supporting act was and, for Snowmine fans, the feeling was mutual.
Regardless, everyone agreed that Berkeley kid, Dan Casey (who goes by Yalls in the electronic realm) was spinning some dance-floor worthy beats, but in dire need of better stage presence. Casey, hunched over a Macbook and mixing desk, stayed that way for the twenty-something minutes of his set. Excepting a few moments when he unexpectedly lifted his head to the mic to add a vocal layer to a couple of tracks, and even then, he hardly acknowledged the crowd. He mumbled through to the end, when he finally issued a clear statement: “I’ve got one more for you.” Then he returned his focus to his setup. Pity, because his last track was a beast of a finale. Pity, because his stage successors would put on a beast of a show, leaving Casey very little claim on the night’s performance.
Two months ago, Snowmine issued the following statement regarding their self-released, crowd-funded sophomore record, Dialects:
There are no foreign samples on this album. Every single sound and orchestral moment was written, arranged, and recorded by us. The goal of the album was to capture a surreal ambiance that married hyper modern ambient synth tones with vintage 60’s sounding cinematic orchestral motifs. We recorded a choir, strings, woodwinds, and reamped synths in a church to capture truly real stereo reverbs, so in headphones you can feel physical, not artificially created space.
These words materialized in the quintet’s live renderings of “Rome,” “Further Along, Farther Away,” and “Plans.” After the first half of the set, frontman Grayson Sanders informed the crowd of the two-month old record, and switched over to old material, from 2011’s Laminate Pet Animal. The Snowmine half of the crowd cheered, and by this point, the Small Black half had warmed significantly. Their set culminated in “The Hill” and “Let Me In,” two massive sounds, the first a groovy, syncopated, Bollywood-tinted tale, and the latter a symphonic serenade.
The crowd regretted not calling for an encore after, a sentiment that could be sensed even by latecomers to the venue. In essence, Snowmine’s performance created a space for conversation, for Snowmine fans to exchange stories (and digits) with Small Black fans. And for Small Black fans to convince Snowmine fans to stick around for the headliners. In essence, the normally stagnant set change was not stagnant at all and the time it took for the stage crew to remove a snowy backdrop and place colourful floor lights was absorbed by audience members’ impassioned speech.
It appeared that Small Black had co-ordinated their attire. Wearing head-to-toe black, they started immediately with the laid-back, ambient “Free At Dawn,” throwing “Despicable Dogs” enthusiasts into a loop. But the group quickly redeemed themselves with those fans two songs later; Josh Kolenik introduced the group, removed his jacket (now he was the only member in white), and said, “This is the song that started it all.” His bandmates and the audience responded with a spirited delivery of “Despicable Dogs.”
If they were more grounded and loose during Snowmine, the crowd was more jumpy and hyper during Small Black. But Kolenik might have something to do with the audience’s behaviour during the headliners’s set. Jumping around manically himself, he struck Vogue poses, initiated hand clapping and fist pumping, and was all over the stage – on occasion, he forgot to bring his microphone with him. Small Black effectively forfeited the “more musically-sound” category to Snowmine, but deserved an A+ for stage effort.
The only other folly of Small Black’s set, which included a rundown of tracks from Limits of Desire (2013), New Chain (2010), and their upcoming Real People, was a funky audio balance between the mics and amps. Kolenik could’ve been turned up and Ryan Heyner’s guitar could’ve been turned down. But this issue only lasted the first half of the show, before Heyner switched over to keys for their recently more electronic-based material.
They played “Proper Spirit” “for the losers,” and they followed it up with “Outskirts” “for the stoners.” Kolenik kept up a self-critical banter with the audience, dubbing himself of the “loser” category and actually apologized about his favourite band, mumbling a little about Small Black’s The Blue Nile cover, “Downtown Lights,” which will appear on Real People. Again, the highlight of the set came during the final two numbers, “Photojournalist” and “No Stranger.”
The ensuing encore, which featured some old school material and “Downtown Lights,” was unable to match that climate, but distracted minimally from an otherwise satisfying night. It wasn’t meant to be a competition, but Rickshaw Stop patrons filtered out, still chatting animatedly about which performance they preferred and introducing one another to the other band’s work.
Our verdict? Snowmine, without trying, had the same stage presence Small Black worked for all night. Sorry, Kolenik.
Article and photos by Joanna Jiang