Last week the Howard Theatre saw one DC-based musician reaching the end of his long road while two other groups began their own journeys.
Fellow Creatures kicked off the night with their hypnotizing mix of electronica, prog and pristine harmonies. While the duo (expanded to a four piece live) of Sam McCormally and Will McKinley-Ward has yet to put out an album proper (their upcoming debut album is being co-produced by none other than Louis Weeks himself), they’ve amassed an impressive collection of songs that continue to morph and mutate when performed live. Where those songs finally end up remains to be seen, but seeing them worked through in front of a live audience provides a wealth of thrilling, unexpected moments.
DC’s best/worst kept “secret” band, The El Mansouris took the stage next. An unexpected supergroup of DC-area musicians (including Fiona Kohrman, Margot MacDonald, Alex Braden from Young Rapids, Sam Raymond, formerly of Rival Skies, and Drew Hagelin of Cigarette), The El Mansouris have only a few performances under their belt. But if the highly polished set they delivered is any indication, they’re already a tight unit with a clear identity. Just like Fellow Creatures, harmonies play a large role in The El Mansouri’s Music, but the group steers clear of any technical fireworks in favor of a more populist blending of indie rock and folk that charms one minute and provides sonic pyrotechnics the next. This was the largest stage on which the group had performed to date, and they took full advantage of the space, surrounding themselves in glowing orbs of canvas-dimmed light, providing a simple yet effective ambiance that underlined one of the few things we know about the band at this point: They mean business.
Also in the “means business” column: Louis Weeks.
In 2014 Weeks released shift/away, a sublimely sophisticated debut that dealt in man and machine in equal parts. Made up of largely electronic compositions with highly complex arrangements and juxtapostions – something that defines Weeks’s style – shift/away found the pathos amid the bleeps and bloops, and in turn found itself sitting atop many music fans year-end lists, yours truly included. What to expect in the follow-up was anyone’s guess, but what we got was something no one, except maybe Weeks himself, could have imagined.
haha, out now, isn’t just an evolution of the sonic ideas bandied around on shift/away, it’s a solid delivery on shift/away’s proof-of-concept that perfectly marries all of the narrative themes Weeks explores in his music with the musical proficiency and technicality that he exudes. A composer of commercial music by trade, Weeks has always been able to pull from a larger toolbox than many musicians. On haha, the reach is still there and still obvious, but this time out he chose to not just find the man in the machine, but to have the man do most of the heavy lifting. As a result, Weeks created one of the most satisfying, and satisfyingly grounded sonic head-trips of 2015.
Enlisting the help of frequent collaborators Noah Berman and Ethan Helm (guitar and sax respectively), Weeks’ live outfit was bolstered with the talents of Matt Honor on drums, Juan Trujillo on guitar, Xaq Rothman on bass (DC musicos may know him from Baby Bry Bry) and The North Country’s Jonathan Parker on sax. The group succeeded in bringing the adventurous, often disparate tracks on haha to life. Given that there’s a more airy, jazz feeling to the new record it not only makes sense that the band all be versed in that tradition, but that many of the dense, best-left-to-the-studio larger than life sonics on many of the songs fall by the wayside when performed live. The synaptic candy fireworks of “Fire” work wonders in set of headphones, with stem upon stem layered off into infinity, but need no such trickery to sound incredible on a stage. Instead, Weeks lets his talented group work their will with real instruments, and while the result may not pack the sonic wallop of the studio tracks, they certainly don’t lag behind. In interviews – including this podcast we did with him last year - Weeks has made it a point to say that in his mind, the record and the live performance are two entirely separate things, and while the instrumentation of haha may bring the two sides closer together, there’s a hidden electricity to these tracks that you can only really get when they’re being performed at high volume and maximum intensity.
“People You Don’t Know”, “White Moth” and an amped up take on “Fire” pulled Weeks’ visions fully into physical space, but it was the back half of the show that provided the real wonders. Divided into two equal parts, the second side of haha is a gorgeous slow letdown into forever, and the band latched into this theme. Tracks “Antelope” and “Mighty Lonesome” shined, but in the end it was the set/album closer “Great Conversation” with its not-so-subtle suggestion that it all just goes on, that illuminated the magic of the evening as a whole.
In haha, Louis Weeks and his band have made an album that some might call “the album of a lifetime.” It’s certainly the highpoint of the 26 year-old Weeks’ creative life to date. Now it’s time for those songs to live that lifetime in front of a crowd. If this inaugural set is any indication it’s safe to say that it will be a long, tremendous journey indeed.
All photos by Kevin Hill. Click to embiggen.
Stream Louis Weeks' haha in it's entirety below. Purchase it (pay what you want) HERE.