The Hype: In the past four years, Berkeley indie-pop quartet the Morning Benders have dropped two self-released EPs (Loose Change and Boarded Door), released one full-length album (2008's Talking Through Tin Cans), and opened for major acts such as the Kooks, Death Cab for Cutie, Yo La Tengo and MGMT.
On March 9, Rough Trade Records released their new album Big Echo, which was co-produced by lead singer/guitarist Christopher Chu and Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor. "Promises," the first single off their new album, is a smashing statement of purpose. In the two years since their last release, their jaunty, free-spirited tunes have become more incisive than ever. They and openers Miniature Tiger certainly had the crowd bouncing around Saturday night at Detroit Bar.
The Show: Don't hate Christopher Chu because he's beautiful, with the most piercing frontman's gaze since Van Morrison. No, if you must, hate him because he does things with his elastic, vibrato-riddled vocal cords that you couldn't do in a million years. Squinting until his eyes were practically shut, Chu brushed his knotty dark-brown hair away from his eyes and pressed his lips firmly against the microphone. He belted out the somber lyrics to opener songs "Stitches" and "Promises" with Pet Sounds-ish accompaniment on acoustic guitar, reverberating piano, and kicky drum lines.
Chu ran the crowd like a wind-up toy, jumping around the stage, slick with sweat in his button-down blue oxford, tight black pants, white socks and black shoes. His handclapping grooves hummed throughout the entire venue as everyone sang along to "Wet Cement," with his chorus of "wa-oh-oh-oh." It was pretty much the only thing you could hear from the song. His lyrics were lost in the loud bass and heavy-riffing guitar. Even so, the catchy melody was spiked by moments of psych-tinged indie rock that was hard not to jive with.
Around 11:45 p.m., the lights dimmed and Bic lighters flickered across the stage from swaying hands. The atmosphere changed into dreamy, wistful enchantment as Chu whispered his seductive vocals to lyrics like "Stuck in a Mason jar where I sealed out my heart." Sometimes a fantastic lyric and a danceable backbeat is all you need.
"Are you ready for a dance song?" shouted Chu on stage. "It's hard to put words into action, everyone raise your glasses," he demanded. With a tambourine in hand, the red lights blasted his face and the crowd went wild for more. At one point, Chu was serenading me with his vocal coos and soft, brown eyes.
The achy-breaky poetic pop and familiar bass-line bounce can't help but conjure late-'60s Kinks--but the hour-long show was really something else. When Chu and backup vocalist/ bass player Tim Or trade vocals, the interplay is extraordinary. The Morning Benders finished their set with a song about love called "Excuses." (Not to be mistaken for a love song). In the front row, a bearded man holding a tambourine was playing while a couple was waltzing to the beats.
Earlier, the four-piece Miniature Tigers opened with a 10-song set. Clocking in close to an hour, they opened with the catchy songs "Tropical Birds" and "Capote Enchantment." Halfway through the set, vocalist Charlie Brand picked up his cell phone. While everyone thought he was making an important text on stage, he admitted that he was checking the set list on his phone. He leaped off stage and started jamming in the crowd to his song, "Gold Skull," while girls were dancing all over his body.
The Crowd: People who wore hooded sweatshirts with sleeves too long for their limbs ran fingers through the air as if they were playing the piano. Old folks along side 20somethings with flannel shirts or black T's were getting half-woozy from the drinks and the melodies. A sexy Asian girl wore a tight red dress, her sandals crisscrossed like an Ancient Roman's up her leg. She had her arms wrapped around a jubilant, long-faced man with a brewski in her hand, as they got dirty on the dance floor.
Overheard: An attendee loudly shouted, "I love you guys!" Chu responded with, "I love you, too," on stage. Then, drummer/keyboardist Rick Schaier from Miniature Tigers who was filling in on stage proclaimed, "I love the Morning Benders!" into the mic.
The Morning Benders Setlist:
3. Wet Cement
4. Cold War
5. Pleasure Sighs
6. Hand Me Downs
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7. Mason Jar
8. All Day Day Light