What sets Music Hall of Williamsburg apart from all of the other major venues I've been to is the absence of a barricade between the audience and the stage. For the first time in my life, I was able to stand right next to the stage and rest my arms and my beer on it. I chose to hang around stage left, and it turned out to be the best spot in the house for taking photos of the bands.
The opening act was Ryley Walker from Chicago, who played acoustic guitar along with a keyboardist and an electric guitarist. His songs were the type of meandering psychedelic folk that Tim Buckley pioneered in the late '60s, with a soaring and soulful voice that sounded remarkably like Buckley's as well (not to mention a similarly untamed haircut). Though Walker's an incredibly focused and intricate guitarist, the songs came off a bit too formless and melodically loose to make a lasting impact, but the crowd enjoyed it. His banter between songs, however, was hysterically funny. His quick retort to a rowdy audience member, "Haha, you spilled your beer, dingus," kept the crowd laughing for a good minute while he tuned his guitar. If all else fails, it's always good to keep the room laughing.
Fifteen minutes after Ryley Walker's set was the headliner, Cloud Nothings from Cleveland, Ohio. Though the band has been touring as a four piece for a few years, it's been reduced to a trio on this tour, due to guitarist Joe Boyer's legal troubles. This line-up reduction resulted in a few songs losing some lead guitar bits, but frontman Dylan Baldi filled out the songs nicely on his own. Another change is Baldi's gear; in the past he's played a Danelectro guitar, which had a twangy, hollow sound that suited the band's early indie pop recordings, but he's since upgraded to a tougher Gibson SG, to benefit the noisier and more aggressive music he's been writing.
Though the band played a lot of songs from their great new album Here and Nowhere Else, the songs that drew the most out of the crowd were the ones from Attack On Memory (my top album of 2012), not necessarily because they're better songs, but because we've simply been with them longer and are more attached. For their encore (which I didn't expect, since I thought Cloud Nothings was too punk for that), the band played the first two songs from Attack On Memory: the slow-builder "No Future/No Past," which I didn't think they'd play, followed by the 10-minute post-hardcore epic "Wasted Days," which is pretty much the only song they can close with.
What I found most appealing about Cloud Nothings' live show is that it doesn't sound at all slick and professional. The performance sounded like the kind of thing you would hear at a basement show or a punk club; the band was loud, the tones were raw, and the vocals were only slightly audible (though I think that was my fault for standing too close to the stage to get a good mix). It reminded me of Nirvana, and how even though the band was playing a sold-out show, it still sounded human and unpolished. As far as I'm concerned, that's how all shows should sound.