by Geno Thackara
It was sort-of-almost-nearly spring but not quite. All day long on Wednesday, you could look out the window and swear the perfect sunny warmth we’ve been waiting for had finally arrived. Or rather, it was possible to enjoy that thought until you actually stepped outside to find it was only in the 50s (if you were lucky) and the wind was still nasty enough to bite through your clothes.
That actually made a good day to set a listener up for Diet Cig. They’re a young duo (in both senses of the term) whose image and debut EP cover suggest something almost annoyingly cute. Their poppy melodies and reverbed guitar give the sound a lo-fi indie vibe perfect for bright summer jams. At the same time there’s a punkish kind of rage through it all, and frontwoman Alex Luciano’s songs aren’t afraid to figuratively bite your head off. Diet Cig has… not exactly an iron gauntlet, but at least something bristly and a bit unsettling, inside their fuzzy pink flannel glove. I’ve rarely seen a singer and crowd shouting such angry words together and smiling so brightly at the same time.
The indie vibe lends itself to a house concert just as well as a gig at an actual venue. A House Named Virtue is a narrow South Philly row house probably no different from any college kids’ pad that you or your friends may have crashed in at some point. The box office was two nice guys greeting everyone like friends at a party and taking donations in a coffee can. The stage consisted of a tiny patch of rug at one end of the basement, and the bands sold their T-shirts and tapes (yes, interestingly, nothing but tapes – I thought those were extinct these days?) out of suitcases in the middle of the living room.
The whole thing actually felt more like an open rehearsal than a show. One minute everyone was simply hanging out and chatting while the house filled up, the next moment someone was calling the crowd downstairs as the first song began. Unfortunately the basement was more sardine can than cozy hangout once everyone squeezed in, not to mention headache-inducingly dim under only a couple strings of Christmas lights. It pretty much meant that the listeners were either breathing straight down the players’ necks while standing right on the same rug, or else barely able to see them from a few feet further back. This is one regard where a proper venue definitely wins out.
The duo Kississippi made a lovely unexpected highlight starting things off. You could simplistically call their music dreamy pop – it reminded me of Beach House without the drums, or maybe a more low-key Cocteau Twins if they’d sung poetry in real English. It’s made simply with a gorgeous voice and clean lushly-toned guitar, no frills added or needed. They played for barely fifteen minutes, but it was an enchanting fifteen minutes and I would have been quite happy with another hour’s worth.
With their roots closer to thrashy punk or grunge than anything pop, Earl Boykins made quite a shift when they took over. They came across as an off-the-cuff garage band, much as they did on last autumn’s release Everybody Likes Dogs. This is the kind of music where loudness and rough edges are a feature rather than a bug. Maybe it’s hard to keep instruments strictly in tune when adjusting on the fly, maybe it’s hard for listeners to make out words when their heads are two feet from the PA speakers, but it’s fun enough to bring the crowd along if you just plow ahead and keep them bouncing. What they lacked in technical slickness they made up in energy and then some.
Diet Cig then had no problem continuing that example even before they got to the key chorus of their first single “Scene Sick”, which mostly consists of “I just want to dance” belted out just as happily as that sounds. At that point nobody else needed any more encouragement to follow along. The band treated the very appreciative crowd to their whole Over Easy EP and a selection of newer things that show more promise for whatever’s coming next. Luciano announced “We’ve become one-third sweeter on this tour,” since she and drummer Noah Bowman are being joined by Earl Boykins’s bassist Dominick Anfiteatro at these shows. It was definitely a good idea. Where the recordings of these songs risk sounding so lightweight they’re barely there, a little anchoring gave them more of a fully-fledged rocking punch to back up the words.
It would have been tough for anyone else to try outdoing that, so it was up to Cyberbully Mom Club to wind things down a little at the end. They occupy a mid-tempo middle ground between the other acts while fitting comfortably in a similar retro-indie niche – not loud enough to tear the place down, not soft enough to lull you to sleep just yet, it made perfect sense as the sendoff to leave everyone calmly heading out to whatever came next. The lineup of the show, and all the bands’ obvious affection for each other, left just the right kind of post-party feeling once it was all over – not the kind of party that leaves you sore and hung over the next day, but refreshed with some warm memories and laughs.