Riding on the success of his album, Badlands, Taiwanese-Canadian musician Dirty Beaches brought together quite a respectably sizable crowd for his super short (but mighty sweet) show at the Mercury Lounge on the Thursday, May 12th in New York City. And though most of the audience seemed as though they had assembled there just to see Dirty Beaches, it became obvious that the openers, Brooklyn band Widowspeak, might just have an equally bright future of their own if they gain the attention that they deserve. The kind-of-psychedelic but mostly grunge-inspired band was, in all of their muted (but undeniably magnetic) stage presence, definitely something quite different to behol. This is especially true in regards to lead singer Molly Hamilton, whose nonchalant appearance and mellow persona made it seem as though she had just ambled off of the street and into the venue, almost uncaring of the fact that she has an undeniably durable, sensuous and evocative voice.
At the end of the set they even managed to artfully slip in a moody and unpretentious cover of the Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game;" in choosing that particularly cheesy song, and turning it into something much more mysterious-sounding, they somehow managed to capture the qualities of the original while still maintaining a sound wholly their own, thus beautifully avoiding the tendency to make an inclusion like that simply to gain a gimmicky laugh from the audience. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before aspects of 90s grunge music will start to creep into more and more indie music, and as such, the magic that is Widowspeak is something that proves that if more bands do indeed start delving into that time period with the same finesse and mellow spark, it will be a welcome and quite different kind of revival.
As for Dirty Beaches’ performance, though his set was disappointingly short, he proved himself capable of conquering the task of doing his performance without any backing musicians, a choice which way too often makes or breaks an artist live since any faults or slips made belong to no one but the single artist up on stage. With his velvet-smooth baritone perfectly in tune and his guitar packing a filthy punch into sounds that would otherwise sound like soft Elvis-inspired blues and love songs, Dirty Beaches rose to the challenge of presenting himself alone in all of his entirely very well. Every one of the few songs he played was spot-on, with extra touches like maniacal laughs and screechy yelps adding more flavor here and there; and yet, it was during the more straightforward songs like the popular “Lord Only Knows” that Dirty Beaches managed to impress the crowd with the genuinely and uniquely emotive qualities that his strong voice imparts into classic-sounding tunes.
Seeing the far-off and often pained look on his face as he sang about true love, devils and heartbreak, you realized that Dirty Beaches’ tendency to reach back into times past in his music is not a gimmick but rather a hearkening to the timelessness conditions of love and sorrow. And while it would have been a little bit nicer had he not made his set so inexplicably short, it was ultimately still a really resounding performance, with the crowd looking at once enraptured and frozen by the presence of such raw emotion onstage. With the whole lone-wolf act down pat, and a cool sound that comes from combining aspects of the oldest rock n’roll with freaky, dark touches like unnerving distortion and unexpected sound bites of human screams, Dirty Beaches retains a consistently enigmatic quality live even when humbly showing his appreciation to the audience over and over between songs. The only thing we could possibility ask is that next time he comes around to New York to perform he gives his audience a little bit more of that compelling and charismatic darkness that they came out so eager to see and enjoy.
Images courtesy of Roma Oleinik, check out her website.