Concert Review: Friends at 285 Kent: 4/13/2013
In September 2012, Brooklyn band Friends played a last minute show at southeast Williamsburg’s 285 Kent as a tune up from their support of Two Door Cinema Club’s nationwide fall/winter tour. The single “Friends Crush” was one of my favorite songs of 2012, as was subsequent single “I’m His Girl” off of Friends’ excellent debut LP, Manifest! (Exclamation point theirs, not mine.) I missed the intimate show, and though I was in attendance at the very first stop on Two Door Cinema Club’s tour in support of Beacon (September 27 at Music Hall of Williamsburg), that show – a last minute addition to the TDCC tour – was the only one of the tour that didn’t feature Friends in support. Earlier this year, I even ranked Manifest! as among my Top 10 all-time favorite albums from Brooklyn artists, so when I came across an email from 285 Kent on Saturday – tonight! 8pm! Doldrums, Friends, Sean Nicholas Savage! $12, tickets still available! – you can imagine how quickly I hit “BUY” and prepared for my second trip to Kent Avenue in three nights. (Friends! Live! A show so good I will forgive them for planting the exclamation point in my head!) There was a time when Friends seemed to only play Brooklyn or lower NYC; in 2011, they did 6 shows here during the week of CMJ. Now they were making their first appearance back here in seven months. This time, I knew I could not miss it and I would not be disappointed.
I think the reason I expected not to be disappointed is because, unlike with the Wavves/FIDLAR gig two nights earlier, I went in to the show with no buildup or expectations. Actually, that’s not entirely correct. If I had one expectation, it was about the music itself. With only one album out and a year in which to listen to it, I knew that the set would consist of songs I knew and liked. In their most recent visit to 285 Kent, as well as on their 2012 festival run and in their support for TDCC, they stuck to their catchy hits – Friends Crush, I’m His Girl, Mind Control and Sorry were all sure to be played. Though I go to a fair number of shows, I’m like most every other concert-goer in that I’m happiest when the band plays their hits. If Friends had only stuck to the basics, I have no doubt it would have been a terrific show.
Shockingly, they did not play Friends Crush. They did not play Mind Control. They did not play Sorry. In fact, they didn’t play a single song I’d ever heard before, unless you count the bizarre version of I’m His Girl that opened the show. If I learned anything that night, it was that sometimes it is best to have no preconceived notions and it’s best when you expect the unexpected. (I also learned that if you go on Facebook, which I don’t, you can learn certain things in advance, like the fact that Friends would be playing all new songs. The band posted that two nights prior to the show over at their Facebook page. Oops.) Rather than have lead singer Samantha Urbani (more on her in a bit) sing the single, Urbani danced while what appeared to be a homeless man did the singing. It turns out that the homeless man was actually local and Nashville “lo-fi legend” R. Stevie Moore. Moore is a dead ringer for the late Captain Lou Albano; perhaps Urbani was going for a 1980s tribute to the great Cyndi Lauper/Captain Lou tandem. Any explanation is plausible for what seemed at the moment would be strangest point of the night, but was very far from it.
WATCH RSM SING “I’M HIS GIRL” WITH FRIENDS
After Captain Lou left, Friends were joined on stage by a topless man and woman, standing to Urbani’s left and right and each wearing a gold mask and holding a bouquet of flowers. Background singers/dancers/flower holders also took the stage, but it was hard to divert attention from the sexy Urbani and the very unsexy topless couple. Ms. Topless Flowers left the stage before the next song, but that that only gave more of the stage over to her male counterpart. Mr. Topless Flowers danced alongside, together with and in front of Urbani in a manner that reminded me of a cross between Will Ferrell and Adam Driver, if you can imagine such a thing. (Yup, I watch Girls.) After a dance song, Mr. and Ms. Topless Flowers came back out, though this time they were wearing mirrors over their heads and much of their bodies were covered in the black material upon which the mirrors rested.
I realized then that what I was watching was no longer a concert, this was performance art. There was as much to see as to hear. The dancing was mesmerizing; Urbani was beautiful and her voice was flawless. Soft songs were followed by dance songs which were followed by disco … I honestly can’t say whether I will like Friends next album or not. With Urbani on stage, though, it didn’t matter. She was sexy and cool, daring and confident, and you could tell that if she were willing to play the game we’d be looking at a megastar. She has the complete package – the voice of Mariah, the stage presence and dance moves of young Britney, the dark sexiness of Lykki Li, the weirdness of Lady Gaga. The only thing the package is missing is packaging – Urbani is like the anti-Lana Del Rey. No one has tried to sell Samatha Urbani yet.
Appropriately, Friends’ last song was a cover of Mariah Carey, who Urbani has been compared to and whom she admittedly is a fan of. In fact, Urbani says that she is a fan of 1990s bubble-gum pop, naming Carey, Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, and TLC. She says that the music is good but it is dismissed “because there’s this association with superficiality and commercial marketing.” Urbani believes that she is just trying to make good pop music without her fans making that association. So perhaps there’s a reason she hasn’t been packaged yet – she won’t allow it. Urbani is mega-talented, but (like Mariah, who had her own ups and downs personally and professionally) she may have some demons inside. She once expressed pride in her mental health issues, saying “having a dynamic psychological range is really important.” Statements like that are hard to package for a mass audience.
I don’t personally like Mariah’s music, but I can appreciate that it’s generally accepted that she has a wonderful voice. Urbani thinks (correctly) that she sounds like Mariah, but it’s really only her voice that sounds like that, not her music. Her songs, while very catchy, are not bubblegum pop. A true artist can’t help but create great art. With influences like Thurston Moore, Adam Ant and David Bowie, it’s not surprising that Manifest! sounds nothing like, say, TLC. Make no mistake, this is some heady pop music. Which doesn’t mean you can’t dance to it! Ask the boppy fan-girls that were pulled on stage to dance with Urbani for the final song: it was like something straight out of a pop-music video.
With all that gushing, I realize now that I’ve spoken very little about the venue, 285 Kent. Whereas my review of the Wavves/FIDLAR show at Glasslands was as much about the venue as the performers, 285 Kent gets barely a peep here. Sometimes a venue, like a football referee, is doing it’s best by not being noticed. 285 Kent is small but not cramped. The sight-lines are good, the bar is easily accessible and the crowd all seemed to be having a good time. After the somewhat winding entrance, the place consists of a pretty bare bones rectangular floor and a stage large enough for the band to do its thing. One wall has an odd mural that catches your eye but then disappears into the background; the remaining walls (including the one behind the band) are a simple white and covered with black graffiti. There’s no balcony, no obstructing pillar … just a cool place to hear some music. Which is all I’m really looking for.
I suppose the signs were there for Friends to put on a strangely delightful show. Their horror-movie-esque video for the song “Va Fan Gör Du” is one. The aforementioned quote regarding mental illness is another. Urbani, together with her ecclectic friends of Friends, put on a show that hearkened back to girly pop music from the 1980s, 1990s and today without once coming off as cheesy. I arrived too late to see Sean Nicholas Savage, and I had to leave prior to Doldrums taking the stage. It didn’t matter – this show was imperfectly and improbably perfect.