Posted June 20th at Soundcheck magazine
“The function of Art is to Provoke. Love or Hate.”
Seeing a band play live is often a gamble: will you love them or hate them, will you wish you’d just stayed home with the album? How much of their sound is created in a studio and will be missing from a live performance? What about these small two-person bands? How is their sound going to fill a vast open air venue, with motorcycles revving outside, enormous stationary fans blowing relentlessly and crowds cheering?
Suffice it to say that when the two-person band Mates of State returned to Emo’s on June 13th, their sound was so big that the rest of the world of Austin disappeared for a good 90 minutes. The couple (yes, married, with a daughter) was driven to play four encore songs, the jam-packed audience tirelessly committed despite the unforgiving Austin heat. And they sounded exactly like their recordings. Their music, their art, didn’t change in the transfer from the studio to the stage.
For good, and perhaps for... not so good. Part of the thrill of seeing a band perform live is not only the sensation of being flooded by the music, but also witnessing the musicians as they play. Watching the way they interact and the ways the music affects them can be worth the price of admission.
Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, the notable Mates, are serious musicians. They bust out vibrant and electric chords on the organ and big, jumpy rhythms on the drums (respectively), all the while singing provocative lyrics (“I’m on my own/ Stop telling me the right way to go”). There is a satisfying contrast in the structure of the songs; the vocals shifting from passionate wails to meditative serenades, Gardner and Hammel trading off, harmonizing and layering phrases. (Oh, and Gardner also plays a mean electric guitar. For an organist.)
But they are serious. They stood at practically opposite ends of the Emo’s stage, and had very little interaction with each other (even the smiles and glances were rare until the encore). They didn’t dance or move around much (except in shifting between organs or from the drumset to the microphone). It just didn’t seem as if they were having fun, which is in complete contradiction to their spirited sound.
Nonetheless, energy rolled off the stage like a wave drowning the thirsty crowd, which is testament to the band’s music. They don’t need to jump and bounce around to give a good show. It’s all in the songs.
For most of the songs (pulled primarily from the new album, but with an occasional throwback to previous hits like “For the Actor” and “Like U Crazy” ), the duo was accompanied by a violinist and/or a cellist (who moonlighted with a trombone). In their sustained notes, the strings added an interesting emotional contrast to the pulsing rock sound, but often all but disappeared beneath the dominant organ and drums.
Just when it seemed the band couldn’t add any more sounds, the fourth song of the encore, and incidentally the finale, brought an onslaught of musicians (ten in all) to the stage. As one fan aptly put it, it was like an “orgy encore”, replete with tambourines, an accordion, the trombone, and of course the drums and organs. The music was invigorating, the energy palpable.
Love or hate it, the show was an impressive display of musicianship, it was as predictable and reliable as any art should or could be, and it achieved its purpose as a live concert: to temporarily transport an audience, to fill them with an external energy, to provoke them to scream and dance around. In a certain sense, the means to that end are irrelevant, as long as it’s achieved.