Frances Quinlan has a voice that can fill a room, and on Wednesday night, it did just that. The Hop Along frontwoman’s evocative singing carries a compelling range of emotion, from playfulness to sorrow to anger and frustration, and its dynamic rise and fall cuts powerfully through the heavy and ambitious art-punk of her bandmates.
But at Golden Tea House, there was no need for it to cut through anything. Quinlan played solo, without loud amplifiers or heavy drums; just a clean electric Gibson and her singing resonating off the tall brick walls, an experience all the more affecting for the listeners. The crowd was exceptionally attentive – it was one of those “you could hear a pin drop” nights, which is rare at house shows, or rock shows of any sort for that matter, and especially so considering Quinlan’s set was mostly made up of unfamiliar material. Aside from two selections from 2012’s Get Disowned (“Some Grace,” “Trouble Found Me”) and a couple covers (a spot-on “Carry the Zero” by Built to Spill into “Barstool Blues” by Neil Young), the songs she played were all works in progress – hopefully to see the light of day on the next Hop Along album.
It’s probably premature to really evaluate the music at this stage – it sounded great, but was definitely in a skeletal state compared to how it will sound in a full band context – but suffice it to say, Quinlan nicely mixed up moody slow burns with riffy uptempo moments, and there’s an absolutely awesome song about the disappearing grave of jazz musician Buddy Bolden.
Joining Quinlan on the bill were two other vocal powerhouses: Abi Reimold (a former Key intern and occasional Key photographer), who performed a stunning and totally PJ Harvey-ish set backed by guitarist Nick Morrison of Mumblr, bassist Zach Kuntz and drummer Alex Giannascoli (of Alex G). Her new EP Forget is a knockout, but most of the songs she played weren’t on it, showing great promise for things to come. Emperor X from Jacksonville has a delivery in the vein of John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats – sorta nasal but supremely confident – and come to think of it, his clever and erudite songwriting was sort of Mountain Goats-esque too, as was his lively banter and command of the crowd. Switching between guitar and keyboard, he sang into a echo-filtered vocal mic on the quiet parts and stepped back to project to the entire room the rest of the time. “At A Rave With Nicolas Sarkozy” was a winning number; I knew nothing about this dude at the beginning of the night, and left a converted fan.
On the opposite extreme was Foot, the solo project of Pat Conaboy of Kite Party. It had a distinctively slowcore sad-rock vibe a la Red House Painters and Low; a lot of minor key progressions interlocking with somber and withdrawn vocals. While some points in Foot’s set were a bit too wandering and introverted to really connect with, its best points were chilling in their own sort of way. Check out photos from the show in the gallery below.