By Jeffrey Adelson
At the DC9 club, one is welcomed to a small stage in the corner, a similarly diminutive bar across the room, and, in between, an open space with booths lining the outside wall of the space. As I entered the members of the Chicago band, NE-HI (pronounced ‘knee-high’), were finishing setting up their instruments and tuning them on stage, taking in the small crowd gathered in front of them. There was also a screen set up to the right of the stage which had a view of the stage for those who couldn’t make it to the front of the crowd (the subject of many jokes between songs on the part of the musicians).
After a short introduction, they launched immediately into an up tempo number, followed shortly by another. The band is fronted by lead singer and guitarist Jason Balla, the heart and soul of the band’s live performance, and while the other members of the band were mostly concentrated on playing their instruments, Balla held his guitar high up on his chest and was spinning, twirling, and jumping around stage only to return to his microphone to deliver his lyrics just in time. The group played well, mixing multiple guitar and lyrical melodies and keeping to the beat of the drummer, Michael Wells. NE-HI mix a lot of elements of different genres into their music, with classic rock cords and instrumentation, pop-style choruses, and the distortion and noise associated with
psychedelic rock and some punk bands.
After their quick opening, NE-HI launched into a number of slower, more melodic songs – showing their strength as a classic jam band. The audience at DC9 was genuinely receptive to the Chicago foursome, nodding their heads in approval as NE-HI worked their way through their set list and giving a hearty round of applause at the end of their performance. NE-HI clearly have the potential to be an excellent band, but their music and live performance need a little bit more edge in order to separate them from similar acts. However, as a band that only recently emerged, there is still time for them to grow into a truly great alternative rock group. If you are interested I recommend NE-HI’s “Drag,” “Since I’ve Been Thinking,” and “Turncoat” as a good introduction to the group.
After NE-Hi finished came the main event of the night – Car Seat Headrest, a Northern Virginia solo project-gone-Seattle-based professional band. This oddly named group, the brainchild of lead singer and guitarist Will ‘Toledo,’ took to the stage and immediately created a relaxed atmosphere in the space, even as the people in attendance pushed forward – clearly showing anticipation for the group’s performance. The four members of Car Seat Headrest had a completely unassuming manner about them, and as the members of the band conversed with each other, the drummer, Andrew Katz, broke into a simple hi-hat and snare beat , beginning the first song of the performance. This turned out to be the 14-minute long “The Ending of Dramamine,” an echoing, haunting track that serves as an introduction to the entire style of Car Seat Headrest – distorted, heavy guitar riffs accompanied by drums, base, and introspective, often depressing, lyrics.
The rest of Car Seat Headrest’s set followed from this slow opener as a crescendo, the
energy building with each passing song. I found the band’s style of performance surprisingly inviting, and it was a pleasure to see how Will Toledo interacted with the crowd. In between songs he would have a bit of back and forth with the crowd, telling us a little bit about himself or remarking on something in the venue. Through his body language while he played and sang he expressed a kind of “I don’t care if you like my music or not, I’m here and I’m gonna play it” attitude that made the performance feel both very natural and very approachable.
The music itself was excellent, building through the set towards an intense second half that had much of the crowd jumping up and down. Having listened to a couple of their albums before going to see them I noticed that Will Toledo and company also expanded on the songs from their albums and added the kind of variation and character that makes for a unique live experience. If my description here has piqued your interest then I must recommend Car Seat Headrest’s entire Teens of Style album, as it reworks a number of songs from their other albums, giving you an impression of all five years of Will Toledo’s work. Also, look forward to Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest’s first studio album, set to come out early this year.
I have been to the DC9 venue twice this past year, and both events have been really excellent – the venue features a relaxed, intimate space, and there are also drinks available if you are over 21. The club is located at U and 9th street, which is a little bit of a ways to go from Georgetown, but I recommend making a night out of it: take the G2 bus from Georgetown’s front gates and get dinner at the restaurant that makes up the first floor of DC9 (I highly recommend the burgers). If you are looking to get out of Georgetown, listen to some new music in a live setting, or just have a fun outing on the cheap – look to DC9 this year!
DC9’s calendar for this year: http://dcnine.com/calendar/
If you are interested in learning more I recommend these articles:
And you can listen to some of NE-HI and Car Seat Headrest’s music for free here: