Show Review: Mates of State, Headlights at the Bluebird, Sunday, June 8

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A line?! At the Bluebird?! It was inevitable, since more shows at the little-venue-that-could are being handled by outside promoters, meaning larger bands are coming through. It makes sense that tonight would have a line -- after all, Gentleman Auction House is a Bluebird favorite (and often packs the club at their headlining shows), while Headlights has performed there a few times and always get people talking for a few weeks afterwards. Oh, and Mates of State played its first show in St. Louis in over four years. I wasn't shocked at the principle of a line at the Bluebird; I just never thought I'd see one with my own eyes.

I missed the first few songs by Gentleman Auction House, but caught two from outside the venue (did I mention there was a line?) and two from inside the doors. The energy was palpable upon entering the building -- as well as the sticky heat that filled the room. It could have been worse; there was no smoking allowed for the show and, thank god, the Bluebird doesn't have a fog machine. The septet closed their set out with two newer tracks, "The Book Of Matches" and the one that goes "I got the megaphone!" [ed. note: "Scissor Arms"] Gentleman Auction House's recent material makes it obvious that they'd rather be compared to Janet Jackson than Arcade Fire, and they made it apparent that they were a highly appropriate opening act to kickstart the show.

Mates of State has a high level of consistency on their opening acts. Previous trips to St. Louis have included support from The Thermals, Appleseed Cast and I Am the World Trade Center. On this tour, they're joined by Headlights, an almost-local quintet from Champaign, Illinois.

"Fraud in the '80s"

I was immediately impressed by the lush, full sound that emanated from the stage as soon as the band started strumming away. Headlights played light, propulsive indie pop that oddly reminded me of the Anniversary -- or at least the Anniversary if they did a set of Yo La Tengo covers (or vice versa?). Total jogging music.

Headlights were even able to pull off the "quiet song where the guitar player plays the bells" thing with a low level of cheese. They weren't completely mindblowing (if subtlety is the band's strength, then its strengths are kind of subtle), but I was definitely intrigued and am curious to hear how their pleasant sound translates into a recorded format.

(While Headlights loaded off and Mates loaded on, I grabbed two Fat Tires -- big spender, I know -- and spoke with Gentleman Auction House front man Eric Enger. Upon accidentally breaching the reviewer/reviewee confidentiality agreement and mentioning that I was covering the show for RFT, Eric broke loose and said, "Hey man! Say whatever you want about my band. Don't worry about hurting any feelings, if you thought we sucked PLEASE go ahead and say it. I really don't care anymore, I just don't." I put my hands on his shoulders. "Dude," I said, poignantly, "I like your band! It's alright! I'm completely going to be positive." Eric replied, "Okay....just know that you don't have to.")

After a somewhat lengthy line-check, Mates of State took the stage to a large ovation from the attentive audience. It's hard to talk about the group without using the word "cute," especially since Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner's boy/girl harmonies are accentuated by the playful looks they give each other on stage in between phrases. However, it became apparent that Mates of State isn't trying to be cute (except maybe on the schmaltzy waltz "Like U Crazy"); most of the time, they just can't help it. The group's set was heavily based on material from their recent Barsuk release, Re-Arrange Us, on which Gardner abandons her trademark Yamaha organ for the piano setting on a keyboard. The tracks on Us have a bit less quirk than their older songs, but the charm of the married couple's performance helped to lighten the mood.

The biggest change in Mates of State's live show came in the form of an expanded lineup. After a few songs from Hammel and Gardner, two younger musicians came to the stage to play violin, cello, trombone, and many different toys and trinkets to fill out the group's sound. The orchestration heightened the dramatics of their somber new material and filled out a few cuts from 2006's Bring It Back, which may have been the first album where Mates of State stopped worrying about the limitations of their live shows while recording.

"Re-Arrange Us"

As the evening got later and the crowd got hotter and stickier, Mates continued to focus on new tracks -- they've got string arrangements, damn right they're going to use them -- and they rarely went more than two or three years into their back catalog. Eventually, Garner and Hammel let their guard down, playing "Everybody Needs An Editor" from their debut album. And it became obvious why they hadn't played more older material, as Hammel sat behind his drum kit embarassingly asking his wife, "When do I come in on this one?" The performance was rusty, but the crowd certainly appreciated the sentiment and roared loudly after the final chord. Mates of State has always favored enthusiasm over complete musical accuracy, and to love the band is to embrace their idiosyncracies. And most importantly, it was cute.

-- Ryan Wasoba

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