Union Hall is around four blocks from Gorilla Coffee in Park Slope, and on nights when my supply of coffee is low and I find myself bound for the venue in question, I’ll generally make a stop beforehand for a freshly ground pack. And so on nights when I find myself standing in Union Hall’s performance space without company, as I was this evening, it leads to a strange sensation: an overpowering smell of coffee even as you drink your beer.
The show began with the usual, a pre-show mix of assorted songs-of-the-moment from the last year or so. On one of the benches lining a wall, a fellow in a blue shirt warbled along with the Dirty Projectors, his girlfriend amused or appalled. It was hard to tell whether he sang out of devotion to the group in question or ironic contempt. (Ah, Brooklyn.) The lights dimmed slowly, leaving the stage barely illuminated. That wasn’t where the first of two bands was headed, though — The Dutchess and The Duke walked to the area just in front of the stage, picked up their instruments, and began to play.
The unamplified set isn’t something you see all that often. I was towards the front of the crowd, and I suspect that Union Hall is about the largest possible venue where this could work with even those towards the back of the room having no difficulty hearing the set. In contrast with the directness I’d seen the last time I saw the group, this set was more laid-back. Though every nuance of Jesse Lortz and Kimberly Morrison’s playing was audible, the duo (along with Shayde Sartin, from Toth’s band, on percussion) occasionally laughed, dispensed “bless you”s to audience members who sneezed, and came close to cracking each other up more than once.
“I Am Just a Ghost” may have been the highlight: Lortz began the song singing just above a whisper and ended it kneeling, face pointed upwards, at a volume just below a shout. And “Scorpio”, from a seven inch on hoZac Records, may be the prettiest song the group has written to date. Throughout, with a few brief exceptions, the crowd was silent — not an easy feat to accomplish around these parts.
It might have been the contrast in styles, but when James Jackson Toth and band began to play, the roar of notes through speakers sounded huge. The last time I’d seen Toth play was a few years earlier, opening for John Vanderslice and still using the Wooden Wand alias. That set was acoustic and abundant with fire and brimstone; this set brought with it a different kind of haze. Toth’s Waiting In Vain is full of segues to paranoia, to smoke-filled rooms and uncertain memories. (It’s not far removed from The Gutter Twins’ Saturnalia — well-written, ecstatically played rock records that document aspects of life I’d rather avoid if at all possible.) The five-piece setup roared throughout the set, and with four of the five contributing vocals, the layered arrangements heard on Waiting translated to the live setting much more closely than I had expected. And while the maddeningly ecstatic “Beulah The Good” wasn’t on the evening’s set list, I left impressed.