The Americans, Elle Belle, Zealyn, Dream Machines And The New Electric Sound At Chinatown Summer Nights, Saturday August 2nd 2017
Chinatown is the place to be during summer. Last night, the old LA neighborhood was booming with music and firecrackers as if it was New Year Eve. The scorching temperatures we had over the weekend in Los Angeles probably encouraged people to stay up late at night in the streets, as if everyone was trying to find some relief from the heat… it was still in the 90s after midnight, but when the temperature reaches 112º F during the day, 90ºF feels cool. So I don’t know if all these people were like me and didn’t have decent air conditioning at home, but a large crowd was haunting the streets of Chinatown till 1 am. I caught a few bands playing on the Mandarin plaza, a show curated by BuzzBands.LA and Kevin Bronson, and I feel sorry to have missed the first ones, but I saw The Americans, Elle Belle, Zealyn, Dream Machines and The New Electric Sound.
With such a moniker, the Americans had to sound like authentic American rootsy rock ‘n’ roll with a touch of blues and country, and they did sound like this. ‘Just one song and I am sweating like Bruce Springsteen’, said frontman Patrick Ferris, and you have to notice that, when they sweat, these men do it like the boss! Because who else sells authenticity better than Springsteen? Joke apart, these Americans played a set of bluesy Americana, with an old-fashioned upright bass and a banjo during a few songs. Ferris’ deep voice, that could even take a sort of Joe Strummer tone, was bringing a real heartfelt quality to their songs, and the result had nothing to do with an obligatory banjo cliché à la Mumford and Sons. But the band does not need introduction among musicians, they’ve participated in Johnny Depp’s ‘Son of Rogues Gallery’ along with performances by Keith Richards, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop and many others, they’ve performed on the ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ and at Reese Witherspoon’s wedding! They knew to elegantly mix genres with a rockabilly influence, infectious foot-tapping tempo and a real Cajun vibe during the last songs. They ended with an obscure (to me) cover of a black gospel group the Evangelist Singers, ‘Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt’… because after all we live in troubled political times.
Elle Belle was next, and it was not my first experience with this very interesting band. Frontman Christopher Pappas is not your average indie rocker, the melodies are real and memorable, the music is complex and multi influenced and he has the charisma of a rock star without doing too many stage antics. The songs were heavy fuzz rock with Papas’ great vocals, and the first time I saw him, I brought up comparisons all over the map, a bit of Beck, a bit of an old-school rocker like Todd Rundgren, a bit of 80s R&B synth coupled with a dance floor, in other words, a genre-bending songwriting sweating swagger at each minute of the diverse songs. It’s very simple, he called his last double album ‘Wako Gumbo’, because it was such a crazy mix of different styles. A slowly sprawling song could venture into loudness while other songs had powerful driven grooves like a War on Drugs song or an atmospheric 70s rocker. I remember seeing Elle Belle in full-face painting before, as if he was a rock-fuzz warrior, no such thing last night but he didn’t remove his orange sunglasses all set long, and this definitively gave him the mysterious appeal of a rock star.
Zealyn, real name Angie Miller, came in third place during the twelfth season of American Idol in 2013, so she probably doesn’t need any introduction. However, her songs were not the straight-poppy type you could expect from someone winning a TV talent show. She sang with very emotive R&B-influenced vocals, while doing the most expressive and athletic dance. Accompanied by two synths and a guitar, she covered Drake, while moving on stage with great assurance. Her music was actually adventurous, meticulously following her plaintive vocals and chest-beating moves. She has already a very large following and a large crowd of female fans, so may be she could be the next Lordes, who knows? The stage moves were impressive as well as the sudden screams as she was probably the most human element of her music.
Dream Machines were a total blast, with their exuberant blend of infectious grooves, dance floors, electronic rage, saxophone solos combined with Harry May Kline’s crazy falsetto prowess, they were like Prince and the Revolution meet LCD Soundsystem, yes, they were this good. There was so much soul, hooks and dance beats during their set that everyone was dancing their heart out. What a party they put on! If you wanted to get in a very good mood on a Saturday night, you had to be there. At the top of this, their dynamism on stage was super-contagious, and soon it was a sweaty blowout as I had rarely seen one on the Mandarin Plaza. They had songs purely soul R&B pop, while others of their dance jams had a tropical fever and an obstinacy of electronica-beat-sax piling at the top of each other until your head explodes… During one of their last songs, Kline sounded like Beck singing like Prince under an avalanche of Chinese firecracker confettis. Always a success as I am concerned.
When you call yourself The New Electric Sound, you have to come up with something new, which obviously is extremely difficult in this crowded music world. Some of the songs of this last band had the freshness and innocence of a Vampire Weekend song, while others were mixing genres once again, producing a wall of sound between pop and rock with some occasional distortion and experimentation. Probably the most remarkable thing of their set was the formidable energy the quintet was installing on stage, they were constantly jumping and moving in all directions, getting off stage and having a great time, like anyone else in Chinatown. After the show, the ground was covered by a few inches of confetti, and DJs across the street were still spinning Michael Jackson.