Because Mates of State’s music is so happy and hip and quirky, I forget that they’ve been at this for a little while. Having existing since 1997, releasing their first full-length in 2000, they’ve got some extensive recording and touring experience under their belts. That becomes instantly obvious live. Their set is as pristine and perfect as a Nashville band of session players live. If it weren’t for their playful comments, enthusiastic, engaged body language and ‘light’ onstage experimentation (which is, frankly, difficult to deem planned or impromptu), they’d be as boring, too. Luckily, or should I say ‘fortunately,’ those elements exist.
So Mates of State played the Drunken Unicorn this past Thursday. They rivaled Madi Diaz and her band of Nashville session players [and no, if you’re wondering, they’re anything but boring] as the best sounding thing I’ve ever heard in that venue. I wonder how long the soundcheck must have taken, or if all the foreign D.I. boxes on stage were a proper indication that this band demands more control of their sound from the stage than most.
However long the soundcheck had taken, I know it couldn’t compare to the amount of time Mates of State must have devoted to making the stage pretty. The top corners of the stage space were adorned with two poofy, cotton clouds filled with lights that alternated solos of on and off. And the greenery that’s traveling with the band was thick enough to stretch across the entire front of the stage and down into the first line of fans. On the back wall, lush, fake flowers lined and encompassed the Drunken Unicorn’s usual starred backdrop like rabid kudzu. Illusionally, vines reached and wrapped around every stand and leg of every piece of equipment onstage. It was quite a spectacle. I imagine that it creates a happy zone in which the performers can perform, the joyous tone of their style somewhat foreign to me, though I do consider their uniqueness darling.
The set begins with “Get Better.” It’s appropriate that the two pieces of this two-piece band, keyboardist/pianist/vocalist Kori Gardner and drummer/vocalist (and other instruments on record, just not tonight) Jason Hammel begin together, as their two touring stage mates hang silent for a bit. The tune strikes me as super key heavy, which is indicative of the set entire, and of their sound entire. It’s different to see that live, though, to see all five or so of those keyboards put to use to produce all the different Mates of State key sounds individually and naturally.
Gardner’s stand is set up with three boards – a heavy Roland piano type on bottom, a Juno-G in the middle and a microKorg on top. She goes to the Micro for the outtro of “Get Better,” and Hammel brings in “Maracas” loudly and forcefully, with a maraca in his right hand and a drum stick in his left. Gardner’s right hand is on the Roland, while the left is on the Juno. The super heavy, low keys, mixed with piano backup, ironically make super light music, I realize. This is true of a lot of songs in the set.
On “For The Actor,” I’m a little surprised and stoked that Gardner hits all the high notes and vocal runs at the end with such ease live. She carries this great performance trait – of belting higher ranged, soaring notes over Hammel’s straight, punchy, almost-chanty lines. It gives Mates of State a signature dynamic, sure, but it’s more separated live. This is particularly characteristic of “Unless I’m Led” and “Think Long,” where Gardner toys with the title line. There seems to be more talent shining in her live vocal performance than the records suggest. It’s soulful, I guess, which doesn’t happen on tape often.
The stage left ‘auxillary guy’ fills a lot of empty space in the set. I can’t tell what keyboards he’s using, but they often, as on “Unless I’m Led” fill a space lower than even the microKorg produces. It’s great texture. There’s also a fine turn/interlude on that song (going into the second chorus), where he and Gardner do some key tradeoffs that spin into a little reverb tornado that’s short lived, sliding into “The Re-arranger.” On this one, he uses the trumpet more, as he does with many songs in the bottom of the set, and also brings out a tambourine.
“So we’re called Mates of State,” Hammel informs, as if that went unknown to the mostly young people who had paid to get into the all ages show. This is just before “Think Long,” a tune in which I am finally able to tell what sorts of textures the guitarist behind Gardner is contributing. They’re very mid-range and smooth, and low in the mix.
“You Are Free” sounds very conventionally rock, except for the arpeggiated keys, that is. It comes across as a more serious song, and the vocals are more natural – with Hammel’s cut-through, consistent lines not seeming forced at all and Gardner’s seeming to flow, interwoven, without any restrictions. The band rocks it out before the quiet part of the song, which is sweet and crisp live. The trumpet comes in for the close of it.
Hammel works the crowd throughout the set by saying things like, “This is the best show of the tour,” and “Can we play here every night?” The kids eat it up like candy, and stay focused relatively well, considering the length of the set. I do notice, however, that their unfamiliarity with the new songs may be contributing to the fact that they stop screaming and cheering as much during that middle part of the set where more of those tunes are situated. Mates of State cleverly play “Like U Crazy” (a general favorite off of 2006’s Bring It Back) before hitting two new ones – they debate of which to do, but end up performing both back to back.
Both of these two tracks are off this year’s LP, Mountaintops, to which I haven’t really given a full, well deserved listen. Seeing these two songs live made me want to do so. The first comes in with an open hat and quick snare beat, coupled by a doubling, driving bass line. The auxillary man plays 16th key chord notes on it. There are audible vocals coming from the guitarist, and audible guitar that rings out over the beginning of the bridge. There’s an odd minor progression for the first three of four parts of the pre-chorus/turn. “We win; we don’t give up!” they shout. The song’s got some conviction – musically, more than vocally, even.
“At Least I Have You” is next. The guitar turn is loud and driving. There are more consistent beats on the new stuff, like a four-on-the-floor beat with this one. I like the progression of the chorus. It’s not as musically happy or typical. There’s a different major/minor walk to it, ala old MGMT almost. This is my favorite song of the set.
The band plays “True Love Will Find You in the End,” a Daniel Johnston cover that was also featured on 2009’s Crushes (The Covers Mixtape), before leaving for all of two minutes prior to returning for the encore. Gardner begins, preparing the crowd by saying, “It’s going to be bad!” Because I’m not at the front of the crowd, I can’t be sure whether someone requested it or not, but they begin “An Experiment,” a track from 2004’s Team Boo. The melodic, smooth trumpet is nice. But they completely flop on the second half of the song, consoling with, “We’ll play the other part next time.” No one minds.
Gardner and Hammel experiment with something else briefly, and then play “Proofs,” followed by “My Only Offer,” which includes a lot of trumpet, which has now become too staple in the set to make dynamic waves for me. The night, which has brewed a more sincere, if not completely serious, mood during the encore, is ended with “Palomino,” another wonderful number off Mountaintops. It starts sort of dark, then Hammel’s almost-struggled, but honestly wrought ‘whoo hoos’ come in. It’s otherwise a very smooth song – no quirky, sharp edges like the older stuff. The drums are more consistent, driving and danceable, just like everything else I’ve heard from Mountaintops. This seems like a nice evolution for Mates of State. I hope the tour in support of this record makes others as curious to go home and listen to it as it did me.
The set that the band ended up playing didn’t exactly follow the pre-planned one, I later discovered. Nonetheless, here it is:
For The Actor
Unless I’m Led
You Are Free
Like U Crazy
At Least I Have You
True Love Will Find You in the End
An Experiment (partial)
My Only Offer