“Ask around.” That’s the catch phrase for many concert-goers right now—and it’s not just for after hours.
After the city was strangled of many of its longstanding live music venues, both small and large (R.I.P. Richard’s), over the past half-decade, new blood is beginning to flow through the veins of our city once again. The soft orange light from various Japanese laterns, red velvet curtain, homely atmosphere, and careful curation have fast made Merge a destination venue worth seeking out. The evening of August 8 was no exception.
Beginning with the bedroom melodies of singer/songwriter Selina Koop, whose pious presence had the small crowd craning its ears, it quickly became evident that musicians would play for musicians on this night, free from the pop sensibilities of the masses. The songstress’ lonesome lamentations made use of the oft-overlooked negative space her piano and vocals allowed for, causing the small but devoted crowd to slow down and pay attention.
Meanwhile, the simplicity of “Into the Sun” relied only on the piano’s dampener to emphasize it’s accents as it closed out the pianist’s brief set.
Acting antithetically to Koop’s elegant quietude, the violin-drums-bass trio Dirty Spells brought their maximalist compositions to the stage without warning. Three-chord simplicity had no place in the Dirty Spells’ songbook as south paw drummer Ryan Betts kept his cymbals piled on the left, allowing him to pummel the open kit through songs like “Hyperböl,” taken from their latest EP Teeth. Then there was the dramatic instrumental post-rock of “Causeway Cannibal” that stretched for nearly 10 minutes as violinist Emily Bach’s subtle finger plucking evolved into a calculated cacophonous climax by the trio. By the end it was clear that amidst a sea of pop and post-punk outfits that dominate the local music scene, the Spells’ recent decision to trim over half the troupe’s original members has shown to have paid off in the mastery of those who remain.
After being wished a happy birthday by all, frontman and bassist Doug Phillips, bowed out to make way for the final act: Limbs of the Stars. Headed by jazz-rock crossover mastermind Stephen Lyons, the four final players arranged themselves in a horseshoe so they could not only look up and feed off of each other, as many improv players do, but it also allowed Lyons to conduct the quartet from behind his guitar and mess of pedals. Diving right into a mix of jazz, folk, and turn-of-the-century indie rock accented with flourishes of New Weird America, the humble ensemble played slow building jams, such as “Film Song,” that gave way to indulgent soloing while keeping the audience engaged. As the set drew on, Lyons feverishly instructed the remaining trio between guitar caterwauls and delay loops on the rollicking “Us Vs Them.” While the six-song set seemed condensed, nearly an hour had passed before the band thanked the crowd who awoke from their trance, mingled awhile, and proceeded into the night.
As I followed suit, the question persisted: Is it better to play to a captivated audience of 30 or a hundred preoccupied LED-blue faces? So while you may have to “ask around” to find Merge, a little detective work will yield great results for those who go looking.