Photos by Joyce Lee
Whitney started a three-night, sold-out stay in New York at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. It was a chilly night near the East River, with the commercialized Manhattan skyline glittering on the far shore. Inside the hall, the atmopshere was less stark. Warm, friendly music filled the room for nearly three hours.
Sam Evian took the stage first, fresh off the release of his debut album, Premium. Sam’s voice, distorted through the mic, felt ghostly and dream-like, floating through the air. This otherworldliness was reinforced by haunting pedal steel from Dan Lead, who also performs with Cass McCombs. The rest of the group, particularly Michael Coleman on keys and Brian Betancourt on bass, grounded the spacious sounds, giving the crowd something to bounce to.
Next up was the charmingly disarming Hoops, a band from Bloomington, Indiana, that looked like giant middle schoolers in their normcore gear: plain, ill-fitting sweaters and shirts; bland, stiff jeans; ugly shoes; DIY haircuts. The group’s recorded tracks, although summery, have a murky, languid sound, but their live performance was clean, with crisp basslines and sprightly guitar. This brightness was emboded by guitarist and vocalist Drew Auscherman’s smiling, bopping presence. He was having a blast. And, frankly, Hoops killed it — catchy, fun songs of melancholy with piercing hooks.
Then Whitney, with their modest, delightful, and supremely crafted throwback folk-and-soul songs. After being introduced as the “best band in the world,” Julien Erlich climbed into his front-of-stage drum set and hunched, peering into the crowd with a bashful smile. He was in awe at the packed room, the biggest crowd that the band had seen so far. It was a turning point for Whitney, and the group delivered. Normally, he would ramble more, he said, but he was a bit intimidated. At one point, he ventured that the presidential debate the night before was depressing, and that everyone in the room knew that. Everyone did know that and everyone was happy to be given a reprieve.
Erlich is a sensational, furious drummer. While playing, his knees jump up and his body careens as if on a choppy sea. His “near-falsetto” is clearer and more urgent in person; on their debut album, Light on the Lake, his voice sounds like it’s wrapped in cotton.
Throughout the show, people in the crowd yelled, “I love you Bubba,” which is the affectionate term the group’s members call each other. This kind of devoted affection was on full display in the room, and culminated in a kiss shared by Erlich and the bassist Josiah Marshall in the middle of the set.
Max Kacakek, best known for the juicy and dynamic guitar rifts of Smith Westerns, towered on stage in denim, nimbly plucking the band’s capering melodies. Malcolm Brown hopped around on the keyboard playing jaunty sounds as the trumpet blasted in the background, sounding both plaintive and renewed, dawn giving way to morning.
The band ran through their taut and hopeful album and played two covers, one by Bob Dylan. They saved their mesmerizing song, “No Woman,” for the end of the encore. Erlich stopped toward the end of the song to thank the crowd and express his gratitude for everything. Then the band launched once more into the full-tilt arrangement, all the sounds blending and roiling like a river. It’s a song about wandering hazily, waiting for a change to transform all that feels stale. But nobody in the audience had any doubt about the night, three hours of glorious reprieve. As if to underscore this, Chance the Rapper came on the speakers when the band left, applauding an evening that everyone was thankful for.