Last Thursday night the new venue Revolution Hall saw a mini Woodsist reunion. The label’s founding band, Brooklyn-based Woods, opened for old label-mates and New Jersey natives Real Estate.
What you need to know about Revolution Hall: It’s a concert venue equipped with two bars inside of a converted Portland public high school that was closed in the 80s. The auditorium may be renovated, but the feel of walking past hallway lockers and over linoleum floors sets you in a weird mood because you’re half expecting to attend a mandatory “dangers of drinking and driving” assembly but the guy in front of you is carrying a beer. The theater is full of seats, so depending on what kind of concert-goer you are this is a big plus or a major drawback.
The first time I saw Woods play was in my first year of college in tan ambiguous room in the student union. Their music then was the kind of layered noise I imagined would make a great soundtrack for watching crystals grow at hyper speed. This was four years ago. Since then, the band’s sound has progressed to being a bit more polished, though their talent to make a catchy melody was apparent in their first album. What they have now seems to be a fine-tuned balance between their spooky muddy psych jams and blissful folk-pop melodies. With their hypnotic instrumentals they’d lead us into a dark wood and just before we lost it they’d shift back to a sunny digestible song steeped in lead singer Jeremy Earl’s sweet and familiar falsetto. That line between lo-fi hysteria and upbeat exuberance is where Woods has pitched their tent.
What they brought to this performance that surprised me was a nod to funk. Earl stomped lithely on a wah wah pedal and flashed sly smiles across the stage. These brief indulgences in 70s funk rock proved to be a solid meeting place for Woods’ two sounds. It also exposed the kind of rambling classic rock jams that erupts in certain recordings of Neil Young or George Harrison from that time. Aside from their digressions into instrumental jams, Woods seemed to exclusively stick to material from their latest albums. Perhaps this is because many of the original members are no longer part of the group, or perhaps they are tired of playing their popular older songs like “Rain On” and want us to progress with them.
The audience was with them.
In contrast, Real Estate opened with a song from their first album, “Suburban Dogs,” a song that captured New Jersey so adequately for me the first time I heard it that I henceforth refer people to the band to understand the attitudes of my home state. Aside from their nostalgic lyrics tying people to places, their summery electric guitars carry most of what their words mean to express. They seem to be about narrating those moments in life that are hard to name, the ones that happen in transit between events and are often overlooked. Their songs draw from the potential in those transitional spaces as moments for reflection and observation. These are soft moments.
The softness was present in Matt Mondanile’s sweet electric strums and the half-parted smile on his face. Mondanile’s guitar drives the songs as much as lead singer Martin Courtney’s voice does. The two of them are often in conversation with one another, speaking eloquently about the nighttime walk to a friend’s house or the idle drives that any teen can relate to. They played songs from their three LPs, moving between them seamlessly. Like Woods, their music has progressed in a way that encompasses a tighter grasp on the perfect indie pop melody, but it also shows a stronger sense of longing for those early days. They are the perfect band for your backyard barbeque, but they played well inside, their jangling guitars slowly washing over the stage like honey dropped in tea.
Their show was layered and rhythmically tight like their recorded music, with the added bonus of playful shenanigans that I imagine comes with many weeks on tour. Before they returned to stage for the encore, they gave roundabout introductions that were both goofy and endearing.
They finished the set with the song “Beach Comber”, the first on their first album, bringing us full circle in their nostalgic journey.