It was one of the better turnouts in recent memory at First Avenue’s Best New Bands showcase, with a sizable crowd gathered and a line snaking out the door for the majority of opening act Bomba de Luz’s set. For many, the evening provides a convenient (and inexpensive) way to connect with some of the most buzzed-about new acts in a live setting, and Friday’s lineup provided quite a few highlights.
Bomba de Luz wowed the crowd right out of the gate with their combination of jazz, classic and blues-rock, with frontwoman Lydia Hoglund’s huge, bellowing voice easily filling the cavernous club. “Bomba de Luz is holding First Avenue hostage right now. It’s amazing,” tweeted Sims, while those in the front of the crowd leaned in closer to watch Hoglund sing and Evan Slack fire off one ferocious guitar solo after another.
The attention remained squarely on the talented vocalists in the house as Strange Names began their set, with lead singer Liam Benzvi and co-frontman/guitarist Francis Jimenez sounding an awful lot like James Mercer of the Shins and Damon Albarn of Blur, respectively. They also showed that their songwriting abilities extend far beyond the disco-dance-pop of their self-titled EP, and one slower, brooding jam had me longing for more new recorded material from the duo.
Third act Eleganza! were the known quantity of the evening. The band consists of members of Chooglin’, Midnight Evils, and Kruddler and is led by Chooglin’ and Evils frontman Brian Vanderwerf, who seems to reboot his musical endeavors every few years. The band drew me in at first with a pair of doo-wop-inspired garage rock tunes, but as the set wore on their songs became more predictable and their performance felt a little tedious despite the fact that it was only 30 minutes long. The band certainly knows how to play off one another, but they could benefit from a few more memorable songs.
Actual Wolf‘s Eric Pollard appeared comfortable and confident throughout his set, a testament to the fact that he’s gigged relentlessly ever since releasing his pair of debut EPs last year. His bandmates are hardly novices, too; bassist Steve Garrington (Low, Retribution Gospel Choir) and brothers Jake and Jeremy Hanson (Haley Bonar, Solid Gold, Tapes ‘n Tapes, etc.) help Pollard to flesh out his Dylanesque folk melodies and bolster his strong, unflinching voice. My only complaint was that Actual Wolf focused heavily on songs from his Lightning and the Wolf full-band EP and didn’t treat the audience to any of his more stripped down tunes like “Minneapolis” or “33,” but it’s possible he thought the more acoustic arrangements would get lost in the increasingly chatty room.
The mellowest act of the night by far was John Mark Nelson, who brought out his 10-piece band (including an entire string section) to perform songs off his most recent full-length Waiting and Waiting. Nelson obviously has a knack for both crafting memorable melodies and directing large groups of musicians, but it felt like something was missing from the ensemble’s performance. Though he seemed a little looser than he was at his pristine sold-out album release show in the Entry last fall, one still gets the impression that Nelson and his compatriots are playing a recital rather than riding the highs and lows of each tune, and their performance on Friday night lacked emotional depth and felt a little flat.
The stage was stripped down to just the bare essentials for Wiping Out Thousands, who blasted the room back awake after a significant lull and even managed to get a couple people dancing to their unique electro-smashing pop songs. Guitarist and producer Taylor Nelson and vocalist and keyboardist Alaine Dickman performed facing one another and eyed each other ecstatically as they focused on material from their excellent full-length debut, This Came First.
And then there was The Chalice, who owned the room from the moment they set on stage with a powerful a capella opening tune and catchy songs like “Ladies Night” and the Queen-sampling “Mama.” The trio was joined by DJ Spacebar, who happened to be celebrating her birthday, and their entire set had a swaggering, jubilant vibe that was fitting for the night’s finale. The crowd started to wane as the final two acts performed, but those who stuck it out for all seven sets saw just how much diversity and potential lies in this latest batch of newcomers. I’m already looking forward to Best New Bands 2013.