by Marcus Waters Bonner
Mutual Benefit played South Philly’s Boot & Saddle on Thursday night as part of the last leg of a tour for their first full-length album. Boot & Saddle’s concert space provided a suitably intimate setting for the band’s folk-influenced sound. Their debut album, Love’s Crushing Diamond, dropped in early October, receiving universally positive reviews and earning the band considerable attention. The 150-person venue space was packed Thursday night as recent converts mingled with apparently long-time fans to take in the warm and enveloping sounds. Founded in Austin as the brainchild of singer/songwriter Jordan Lee, Mutual Benefit has been garnering a solid following since releasing a first EP, Figure in Black in 2009. Since then, with a fluid lineup centered around Lee, the project has produced four EPs and a split single with Brooklyn pop act Holy Spirits before Lee began working on Love’s Crushing Diamond.
The show opened with local rock act The Interest Group. Headed up by vocalist Marissa Lesnick and lead guitarist Yohsuke Araki, The Interest Group was able to grasp and retain the full attention of the audience. The currents of garage rock, post-rock, folk, and pop running through their high-energy performance set the tone for the rest of the night, with soulful vocals and effects-heavy guitar solos making a lasting impression on an erstwhile indifferent crowd.
Directly preceding Mutual Benefit was Lewis and Clarke, venerable Pennsylvania musician and songwriter Lou Rogai’s longtime project. Rogai delivered his deeply personal lyrics in a voice that may evoke thoughts of Tom Waits or The National’s Matt Berninger. Though deftly engaging the entire crowd, Rogai’s gaze seemed fixed for most of the performance as though he were singing to the person for whom he wrote each song. It was like looking at the Mona Lisa; he was looking at everyone, but it felt like his accusing eyes and often devastating lyrics were aimed straight at you.
While the close quarters facilitated a fluid transfusion of energy between crowd and performers, the small space – and lack of a backstage – also created some logistical difficulties setting up and breaking down the stage for each performance. From the beginning, the show was running slightly behind schedule. Lewis and Clarke’s set was cut short by one song and the audience could hear the sound man reminding each act of approaching time limits. Each band had a full load of instruments and effects equipment, and had to wade through the crowd to move guitars, keyboards, synths, and an upright bass back and forth between the stage and the side wall against which they were stored. Several times, Lewis and Clarke frontman Lou Rogai announced that he and his band were playing the entire set at triple speed. Having subsequently listened to the studio versions, I still can’t tell if he was joking.
Between songs, Mutual Benefit’s frontman Jordan Lee exhibited some signature shy-boy charm, further winning over the already riveted audience. He gave props to Lewis and Clarke immediately upon taking the stage. “It sucks when there’s a band and they kinda sound like you, but they’re doing it better,” joked Lee in a disarmingly gentle voice. “And then you have to get up and follow them.”
An inebriated gentleman toward the back of the crowd shouted several requests and a good amount of encouragement at Mutual Benefit. Lee joked that it’d been a while since they’d had a heckler, but expressed gratitude that they usually received “positive” heckling.
Jordan Lee mentioned sharing several dates and locations with dance-pop band Darkside on the tour. Fans in other locations had apparently forgone seeing Mutual Benefit in favor of Darkside, and Lee even mentioned times when Darkside played the floor above them in the same venue. “Darkside’s dance music so you could hear the bass and people’s feet above you.” Citing these reasons, band members pointed out that bassist Marc Merza was wearing a Darkside t-shirt. The same drunk fan shouted out that Darkside was in fact giving away tickets and Lee appeared to take solace in that prospect, laughing that at least everyone there cared enough to pay. “Fuck Darkside,” he joked, eliciting laughter from an audience caught off guard by the sound of the “eff word” in Jordan Lee’s delicate voice.
In addition to the folk aesthetic common to all, the three acts seemed to complement one another’s vaguely psychedelic vibes. Each performance featured at least one crescendo, all with a distinct eerie quality reminiscent of more lo-fi and guitar-oriented psych rock acts like Kurt Vile or The War on Drugs.
The highlight of the night was when Mutual Benefit played “Strong Swimmer”, the leading single off of Love’s Crushing Diamond.
Plus, there was a dude in a blonde wig dressed as Steven Tyler circa 1976 doing the exact same swaying motion the whole show through. That was entertainment enough even without the music.