Walking into the Amsterdam Bar & Hall on Saturday night was an immediately disorienting experience. At one end of the room, the Le Cirque Rouge Burlesque troupe was wrapping up a cabaret show, their house band giving the darkened space a speakeasy vibe while a woman performed a 3D striptease from behind a sheet. In another part of the room, a wedding reception was just wrapping up, the bride and groom’s families slowly being edged out by impatient rock fans. And on the side stage, acoustic guitars and flutes and drums were lined up awaiting their owners as the room flooded with more and more people.
With the club triple-booked, it was hard to suss out who was at the club for which event, and it took time for the space to shift gears. But by the time the Brian Just Band took their places on stage, the venue had shifted into rock show mode. It was hard to tell whether the crowd was still lingering from the other events, but Just drew the biggest crowd of the night by far and he and his band played to every corner of the room, cycling through chamber folk-pop songs a la Belle and Sebastian and more heady, psych-influenced ’60s pop. With players specifically dedicated to instruments like the flute, trumpet, and tambourine, it fleshed out the band’s sound and added pretty counter-melodies and nuances — and when the entire seven-piece group chimed in with bursts of vocal harmonies, it was positively divine.
The guests of the honor, however, were Very Small Animal, and they wisely played in the Hollywood Headliner slot and saved support act Sleeping in the Aviary for the very end of the night. Very Small Animal first came onto my radar when I was poring over the submissions for the Are You Local? contest last month, and the intimacy of their track grabbed me immediately. Sure enough, it was explained by co-songwriter Tim Harlan-Marks that their entire debut EP was recorded in his living room, and that DIY spirit carried over into their live show.
There are a few remarkable things about Very Small Animal, including the fact that both Harlan-Marks and Patrick Noonan serve as co-frontmen of the band and each change the sound of the group dramatically when they step up to the mic. But what also struck me on Saturday was that each of the bandleaders and Brian Laidlaw are all skilled multi-instrumentalists, and the three traded off playing the acoustic, electric, and bass guitar on nearly every song.
Noonan was a compelling frontman, dressed in a leather vest with a mop of curly hair flopping over his face, and I think I preferred Harlan-Marks on bass if only because he became the most animated when playing that instrument, but both showed an ear for songwriting and melody. Harlan-Marks’ songs came off as more precious folk-pop while Noonan was downright operatic in his delivery, at times reminding me of a slightly less willowy Jeff Buckley. But the band’s defining characteristic is their energy as a group, and they seemed to sweat joy as they entertained the room.
By the time Sleeping in the Aviary came out to finish off the night the room seemed downright giddy, and the band played one of the best sets I’d ever seen from them, thanks in part to the fact that it was their bass player’s birthday. He ended up playing the entire set with a giant mylar balloon tied to his bass while Karen Freire of Buffalo Moon tossed handfuls of confetti at him from the crowd; that moment was made even sweeter a few songs later when the band returned the favor by serenading her with a song written in her honor, “Karen, You’re An Angel.”