After canvassing the block of 23rd and Lexington, online, to get in to Gramercy Theatre, the “SOLD OUT” sign was in view and I began to understand the hype about Hiatus Kaiyote. Admittedly, I didn’t know a lot of their music beforehand, but what I had heard, I really enjoyed. Upon entering the venue, a strong red hue took over the entire room. The people were piling into the “standing room only” area, and the seats in back were slowly being filled. There was a DJ playing old school funk and dance music to warm up the crowd. Some of those epic songs included “Le Freak” by Chic, “Give Me The Night” by George Benson, as well as “I Wanna Be Your Lover” by Prince. If this music was any indication of what was to come for the evening, then I was more than ready to get things started. Additionally, as I glanced around the room, I noticed the most ethnically diverse crowd I have ever been a part of. Not only that, but there was an incredibly wide variety of ages present. For a moment, I was standing next to a fraternity bro and his girlfriend on my left, a Filipino family on my right, and two women, likely over the age of 65, just in front of me. It felt good to be surrounded by so many people from different walks of life. With that in mind, and good vibes in the air, it was time to start the show.
The Brooklyn based Hip-Hop group, Phony Ppl took the stage and immediately brought us some old school, dance-worthy grooves. Due to their funk and soul flavor, it made sense that the vocalists were backed by real instruments. Not only did it remind me of The Roots, who I love, but it also fueled the energy that was emanating from the stage. The two vocalists, one singer and one rapper, kept the audience excited as they delivered their rhythm-conscious lyrics. A standout moment was “Baby Meet My Lover,” in which Elbee Thrie was able to show off his smooth, soul-based vocals. His tone was excellent, and it allowed him to carry the group on slow jams as well as the more upbeat tracks. “End of the niGht” was really impressive due to Sheriff PJ’s rapping ability. He laid down those rhymes with such finesse, yet the vibe still remained relaxed. The hook, sung by Thrie, was very old school sounding, as Sheriff PJ accentuated the melody with his interjections. This tune was just about as funky as anything I have heard in a while, and it honestly felt good to listen to. After Phony Ppl’s wonderfully energetic set, the DJ began to bump those classic funk jams once again. Before long, the lights went dim and the crowd began to roar.
Hiatus Kaiyote was revealed on stage as the projector screen was lifted. The lights changed to a blend of blue, green and pink, setting the mood for the jazzy, soul-filling, slightly R&B, funk music that we were beginning to hear. With Nai Palm at the front of the group on vocals and guitar, Paul Bender on bass, Perrin Moss on drums, and Simon Mavin on keys and synth, these four showed uncanny talent and passion during their time on stage. They messed around with time signatures and rather unpredictable song forms to create a sonic experience for the audience. I was more than impressed by the sound; I would say I was entranced by it. Even from the first note, I was completely captivated by their sound as well as their undeniable musical talent. I was lucky enough to grab a seat, so I could really sit back and take it all in. You know a band is really great when you don’t know many of the songs, but you enjoy every minute of the show, nonetheless. They played several tracks from their newest album, Choose Your Weapon, as well as selections from their 2013 release, Tawk Tomahawk.
A major highlight from their set was “Nakamarra.” From the first few notes, the audience roared in support. As it calmed and Nai’s incredibly quirky voice sang “Hanna, my darling,” the soulfully jazzy groove filled the room. The lyrics are powerfully enchanting, and the melody matched that notion. The synthesizer added a beautifully dreamy aspect to the already epic sound. The crowd sang on Nai’s cue “I love you I do.” Watching the whole audience react so strongly created a real community feeling within the theatre. When a band can connect that heavily with an audience, you know you’re involved in something special. Some other great songs performed throughout the evening were “Building A Ladder,” “Molasses,” and “Breathing Underwater.” Perrin played the drums so beautifully and was able to use subtleties and nuances to constantly reel in the audience. He is easily one of the best drummers I have ever heard. Hiatus Kaiyote continued to impress with their tight rhythms as well as their obvious musicianship and passion. They made the complexities in the songs look effortless to perform.
Another great moment from the evening was “The World It Softly Lulls.” Nai introduced the song by saying that she wrote it about a waterfall back in Australia. Every time she plays the song, she can so vividly remember that day, and drinking from the waterfall. That explanation brought us closer to the group and further enhanced the community feeling that was established in Gramercy Theatre. The synthesized reverb surrounded the room, as the high-pitched notation created a futuristic vibe. Again, the sonic experience was truly mesmerizing. The song built up so seamlessly, as they switched time signatures and continued to add surprising new elements to the melody. By the climax of the song, I couldn’t believe how soul filling this whole experience was. Between the strength of the vocals, the bass, the drums, the keys and the synthesizers, that was one of those moments when I remembered why I do this; why I love hearing live music and the feeling of being a part of something bigger. I didn’t know much about Hiatus Kaiyote before the show, and to have that strong of a reaction to their music is really exciting. Not only do they have a new fan in myself, but also, I have since purchased their new album, and can assure you I will definitely be at their next New York show.
I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Simon Mavin after seeing the show. Listening to him talk about the group was really fascinating to me. The Melbourne, Australia based band started playing together about five years ago, and Simon says that each one of them “brings something to the table,” which makes them completely unique as a group. He spoke of Perrin’s drumming and how his knowledge of music is “far deeper than most other drummers” due to his production experience. “His understanding of pocket and groove, and his ability to hear what he actually wants to achieve is what most drummers try to figure out for years.” Simon’s depiction of his fellow band members and their talent spoke to the mutual respect they have for one another. When I asked him about the composition of their songs, he spoke of Nai’s ability to write complex tunes that she would bring to rehearsal for the rest of the group to learn. He said they gelled from the very first rehearsal. It wasn’t long before everyone began bringing his or her own flavor to the project. Without thinking about fitting into a genre, Simon detailed their different upbringings, coming from different places, yet all having an appreciation for “good music.” He says, “We just do whatever we want, and if it sounds good, accept it.” Even when I asked about all of the complexities and time signature changes, Simon reiterated that it’s not about counting beats in a measure; it’s more about getting to know the songs and getting used to the sound. He talked about the “changes of energy” throughout a song, and not thinking about the “technicality bullshit, like the rhythm and time; it’s more about the song.” That’s not to say they don’t spend hours in the rehearsal studio making sure they get it right, but when it comes to performing, they know these songs inside and out, and the technicalities take a back seat. Simon’s favorite song from the live set was “Cinnamon Temple.” The song is entirely new, as it’s not even on Choose Your Weapon. It’s exciting to know they have plenty of new music to continue to keep our Hiatus Kaiyote needs satisfied.
Simon spoke of the audience at the show. He laughed and mentioned that people were just watching and listening intently, more so than singing along energetically. I told him that I was definitely one of those people just sitting back and listening, but it wasn’t for lack of amusement; it was due to being in utter awe of what I was watching and hearing. Simon said his aim is that the audience “has a mind blowing experience,” and I believe Hiatus Kaiyote delivered that on Sunday evening. It was special to share this wonderful show with a whole bunch of strangers from different walks of life. It felt like a community, united by some of the best live music I have ever heard. Tonight’s experience only further enforces the idea that music is universal. With all of the craziness going on around the world, and recently, here in America, it’s nice to see people coming together, with their best foot forward, to hear some great music.
Article: Alex Feigin
Photos: Lesley Keller