Feature: Little Big League, Foxing, Adventures, and Seahaven – Live in Cambridge, Massachusetts
by Chad Jewett
The Middle East Upstairs, huddled on Massachusetts Avenue roughly equidistant between Harvard and MIT, is both Greater Boston’s most venerated punk club and also its longest-lasting. This is due at least in part to how swiftly the house venues that dot the college-student haven of nearby Allston get shut down. No basement space, no matter how carefully protected, no matter how thoughtfully contained to keep from bothering working class neighbors and young families trying to sleep in Allston’s suburban side streets, lasts more than a few years – at most. This means that Boston has an oddly fitful punk and hardcore scene, one that frequently spills into the VFW halls 20 minutes North or West, or that is confined to the few house spots that are able to fly under the radar, mainly due to being small, contained, and faintly snobbish.
But the majority of shows end up at spaces like the Middle East. The club is divided three ways, between a more capacious downstairs (think Islands or Why? or Pains of Being Pure At Heart in terms of the class strata of bands playing there), a restaurant with a tiny stage limited to small jazz ensembles and ambient combos, and the upstairs, where, last night, I watched Little Big League, Foxing, Adventures, and Seahaven. The Upstairs is the complex’s most kitschy space, the room accented with faux-Saharan/Arabian touches like arched doorways evocative of make-believe Morocco and a logo above the stage consisting of a pair of pyramids and a palm tree. The whole thing is reminiscent of the weird, outré humor that surrounded punk and “outsider” music a few generations back. Now the paint is faded. You get to the Upstairs by walking through the main dining area of the Middle East, meaning that, on nights like these, there is a two-hundred deep cavalcade of young punk and hardcore kids marching past young urban professionals enjoying falafel and grape leaves to get to what still feels like some hidden away secret space, even if its actually one of Boston’s most famous. There’s an irony floating around there, that Boston, a municipality that clearly shows a priority towards cutting down on the “noise pollution” of indie punk venues in order to protect a certain gentrified polish, nevertheless ends up with scenes like this.
Little Big League began the show, and one hopes that sooner, rather than later, they’ll instead be closing it. Mainly running through songs from their exceptional 2013 LP, These Are Good People, the band played with a palpable joy. This was especially salient as the band played their excellent new single, “Year of the Sunhouse,” the spry live rendition underlining just how radiantly the song is rooted in the kind of agile power pop that makes the best Superchunk songs feel like ecstatic May sunlight. At several points during the set, Singer Michelle Zauner would bound away from the microphone to hop eagerly back and forth during songs’ instrumental passages, as if torn between her considerable talents: a wonderfully evocative high alto and a poignant feel for wiry guitar melody. Perhaps due in part to a soundman who clearly prized bass (inter-band lulls were shook with bass-zoomed ASAP Ferg), one got the sense of the deceivingly adept rhythm at the heart of Little Big League’s shimmering mélange of 90s emo and late-SST indie rock. Live, the band’s sound is thick, rubbery, and bass heavy, allowing Zauner and Kevin O’Halloran’s guitars to shimmer along the surface like sparklers in twilight. Little Big League show a gift for proportion and admixture, finding ways for guitars to weave around each other like strands of Christmas lights, yet fill the considerable space above Deven Craige and Ian Dykstra’s oceanic rhythm section, giving the whole thing a swirling nebulae aesthetic not unlike Broken Social Scene, who usually accomplish a similar sound with three times the participants. The band’s set was wonderful.
Foxing was equally revelatory. Built entirely from songs off the band’s masterful 2013 album, The Albatross, the set was ecstatic and physical, joyful and moving, and, similar to The Hotelier’s short set a month ago, felt like a crystallization, a moment where a band was finding authority over their own songs while discovering a full room of people captivated by their creations. The band began with the quick swell of “Inuit”, singer Conor Murphy swiftly moving from the song’s early Frank Ocean falsetto to its belting middle, which, live, took the form of a full-throated post-hardcore shout. Almost immediately the audience caved forward, the timeless punk/hardcore expression of approval as young men perhaps just a few years younger than Murphy haloed the stage to sing the song back. The band moved through its chunk of The Albatross with a precision belied by their clear pleasure in playing these songs. Each member was almost constantly in motion, underlining the elastic grooves at the heart of the album (“The Medic”, for instance, was never closer to being a late-70s, Quiet Storm soul number), emphasizing the ways in which rhythmic creativity and a gift for pulsing emo and post-rock music with the syncopation of R&B and jazz have defined the unassuming brilliance of The Albatross. At times the band appeared to be bobbing in time to a similar ocean current (perhaps aptly for an album obsessed with nautical imagism), each member’s individual physicality (especially entertaining was the guitar bookends of Eric Hudson and Ricky Sampson, who both managed to thread the songs’ delicate melodic stitching while never, ever standing still) standing in for the pointillism of the record, the ways in which it feels like an impossible-to-duplicate collage.
The live setting had a similar clarifying effect for the Pittsburgh emo pop quartet Adventures, whose grinding 90s aesthetic took on new energy and dimension in performance. Live, one senses the sprinting, early-Get Up Kids effervescence at the heart of the band’s subtle, major key punk. There was also opportunity to recognize the careful interplay of guitarists Reba Meyes and Dom Landolina, whose riffs, at their best, twine and echo, giving the songs an ever-shifting surface like tangled grass. The bass-thick sound of the Middle East Upstairs became a near monolith during Adventures’ set, the whole thing becoming a wall-of-sound of near physical proportions, the kind of 30 minutes where you can distinctly feel bass drums and E strings in your chest cavity.
Seahaven, whose set ended the evening, had the tricky task of making the subtlety and ambiance of their recent LP, Reverie Lagoon, work in a room shaped to the kinetics of Foxing and Adventures. As an hour-long listen, Reverie Lagoon is a mood-resplendent work of atmosphere, an album that traces subtle harmonies and ideas like shapes in sand. The record has the intangible quality of sunset, a synesthesiac corona of washed-out purple and orange. To the band’s credit, they leaned into the record’s delicateness; indeed, there was sheer bravery in Seahaven playing two of its most unadorned songs in a row, numbers almost entirely comprised of voice and a lone guitar. Singer Kyle Soto allowed the languorous quality of his melodies and delivery to remain, giving the set a gently weary quality that was perhaps fitting, a tiredness not unpleasant after a long evening. It also meant that the band’s more assertive songs, like the faintly sinister “Flesh” felt positively exhilarating, the influence of late-era Brand New’s mix of dread and relief falling into focus as the band punched and floated amongst similar dynamics. Outside, Boston couldn’t seem to decide on rain or a light, gauzy humidity, a mix of temperaments wholly evocative of the gently eroding surfaces that define Seahaven. Eventually the Middle East Upstairs spilled out into that varying weather, into a city that sounded remarkably quiet all of a sudden, into air that felt bracingly cool, into walks home filled with echoes.