Last night, the heavily bloggerized Brooklyn-via-Tacoma duo Widowspeak celebrated the release of their second album, Almanac, with a sold-out show at the Mercury Lounge.
And while the record has been streaming on NPR and NME for some time now, this marked the first time they’ve played most of their new material live; expectations were high.
Much has already been made about the group’s transition from the relative minimalism of their self-titled debut (which they recorded as a trio) to Almanac’s more expansive compositions, which they performed last night as a quintet. But what hasn’t been said yet is just how fluid those compositions are on stage. The performance unearthed elements of Almanac that are only suggested, or are hidden altogether, in the studio recordings.
Perhaps most striking was the prominence of Robert Earl Thomas’ lead guitar. His scuzzy wails were placed at the foreground of the mix, tearing through the arrangements as he lurched and vamped across the stage. All of a sudden a song like “Devil Knows,” which initially comes off like a Washed Out b-side, took on a vibrant punk energy; the bottleneck slide on “Spirit is Willing” was so raw and bleary it practically reeked of stale beer; the gloomy “Harsh Realm” from their debut was pierced by savage electric howls.
In other cases, it wasn’t a single instrument but the live setting itself that produced unexpected results. “Thick as Thieves,” Almanac’s waltz-like lament for lost friendships, seemed downright skeletal in the space provided, leaving plenty of room for sinister, sensual undertones. And album closer “Storm King,” which duly confirms any Velvet Undergound comparisons, assumed an arid, dystopian drone that called to mind a strange bedfellow: Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
At the core of all this was lead singer Molly Hamilton, a lone figure dressed in a white and possessed of a haunting grace befitting her ethereal vocal presence. Eyes closed, head cocked gently to the side, surrounded by bearded men in denim coats, she appeared to float – sonically and physically – above her surroundings.
All of this is to say that Widowspeak are evolving. As they test their boundaries both on record and in concert, they discover things about themselves that nobody could have anticipated. Forget the critical descriptors - what we witnessed last night at the Mercury Lounge was a rock band coming into its own.