by Geno Thackara
It started with a scary flashback. Waiting on the stairway up to Milkboy’s second floor, for a minute I was taken straight back to MTV’s early days with one of those semi-cheesy synthesizer hooks that were so big once upon a time. It was the sound of New York City band Mainland kicking off the evening in classic retro style. But you know what people say about first impressions, and you can’t judge a four-act show by the first minute. Overall this month’s Communion program was based more around loud rock and roll with a little Southern bent when it arrived for the Philadelphia stop on Wednesday.
Barely a couple minutes in, Mainland singer Jordan Topf was declaring “I’m just going to throw this shit away because it’s not working” (referring to the keyboard, that is). I couldn’t really say if it made their sound much different since there were two other synths remaining to add a little shading. Whatever the instrumentation, the vibe remained intact–they’ve got a fun catchy top-40 feel without overproduced top-40 slickness. Sometimes it was familiar radio-ready pop, other times classic California rock with a touch of 60s spy-movie theme. Their music (a preview of their debut full-length which was just recorded last month) sounded like it would work equally well on a highway cruise or at a summer barbecue.
Ontario’s own Arkells would also be fine in those contexts, but probably even more suited to an all-night nonstop dance party instead. Frontman Max Kerman stomped out yelling “We’re here to warm you up,” and it was the understatement of the night. They weren’t a warmup so much as a roaring furnace. It had the room sweating and shouting from the first minute, and their kind of rock and roll sounded somehow timeless. At times I could have sworn this was a band I’d seen in some college bar ten or fifteen years ago, or maybe heard on the local classic-rock station while growing up. At the same time their super-catchy “Leather Jacket” isn’t at all out of place on today’s airwaves either.
Overall it was a most addicting way to discover them and their newest album High Noon. (What more natural title could you expect from a band from southeastern Canada?) It actually felt a bit odd for Arkells to be in second place on the bill; I thought their hyper shake-the-house-down energy might have made more sense at the end of the night. Were the promoters afraid of leaving the audience too drained to stumble home right away? I can only wonder.
That wind-down may be the reason Sarah Jaffe was undeservedly greeted with an almost-empty floor. Her opening song was gorgeously trippy enough for Siouxsie and the Banshees, but it wasn’t quite enough to bring the reduced audience back from the bar. It took an actual request for most of them to finally drift stagewards again. That was the turning point of her set, since everyone was back to stomping the floorboards within a few more minutes and it stayed plenty lively from then on. Jaffe and her rich powerful voice were a big part of it, but I have to give just as much credit to Robert Sanchez’s crazy drumming for keeping things in high gear.
Soon enough it was time to head even further south for the finish. If you can imagine someone simultaneously channeling Tom Petty and Neil Diamond through a Latin American filter, you can sort of imagine what you’re in for with Peter Matthew Bauer. He had the show feeling almost like a tent revival with “Liberation!” from his album of the same name (and a trio of spirited backup singers certainly didn’t hurt). From other titles like “Shiva the Destroyer” or “I Was Born in an Ashram” you can tell he’s open to all kinds of sources, but he makes it all his own. There was always some groove to follow and things never got off-the-wall enough to keep the fans from dancing all over. He mentioned that he and the band have had a rough couple years, but their performance and the new songs (such as the sincerely warm “You Stand by Me”) suggest they’re past it and ready to storm the road again.
Communion is still going strong on both sides of the pond every month, so if you miss one bill of up-and-coming acts, it’s safe to say next month’s will be interesting in a whole different way. At the moment it’s too soon to say how–you’ll just have to come out sometime and find out for yourself.