The Haunt, Ithaca, N.Y.
September 30, 2014
To put to bed the recurring complaint that all Real Estate songs sound the same (and the New Jersey quintet naming one of their best “All the Same” surely didn’t help), just look at the crowd that filled The Haunt Tuesday night to see them. Or, rather, look how it moved.
There was a lot of the head- and waist-swaying you could expect for a band whose signature guitar sound is shimmery, entrancing and quintessentially “chill.” Tellingly, however, the movements of the college students and townies in attendance varied throughout the night: Some songs called for eyes to the floor as fists air drummed along, and others sparked a no-contact variant of moshing that, while respectful, still fueled a most entropic display. During the slowed-down breakdown at the end of “The Bend,” a key track off this year’s Atlas, almost everyone bobbed their heads back a foot and forward a few more, like loyal pumpjacks on an oil field.
A Real Estate concert demands more energy than you might think. For an hour and a half set of spritely indie rock to not just stay interesting but engage every soul in the room says more about a band’s intimacy with its fans than any technical skill. It’s not even a matter of sobriety, or lack thereof, for the parking lots were packed and plenty of friends before the show spoke in hushed tones about how much work they had to do when they got home. But once the show, which was organized by Dan Smalls Presents, got going, it was as if all that baggage fell to the floor and a mid-week respite took on a more powerful, albeit different meaning for each person there. I heard friends and total strangers gush, after the show or mid-song, how isn’t this just the greatest?
Like the night’s headliner, opener Regal Degal exercised surprising control over the audience with their loud, loose and very ’80s post-punk. Frontman Josh da Costa, sporting a possibly ironic mullet, did the typical opener thing where he introduced his band’s name and place of origin (“New York City!”) between every song, which became a running joke that worked because he kept a straight face. He also dropped the vivid titles of their songs, such as “Eaten Alive in Front of Stained Glass,” “I Sit Like a Chair” and “Ruining My Life.” If these guys lack the sincerity of Real Estate, they also boast a crazy sound that shifts with each song, where you get drum machines on one track and Peter Buck-esque guitars on another, with macabre confessionals as the only throughline. My friend Ana Niño ’15 summed them up: “They’re like The Smiths plus The Cure … but adolescent.”
Fading in their performance with “Green River,” a breezy song off their 2009 debut, Real Estate started small in order to build to something big, like the hypnotic “Kinder Blumen” or an energized update of “Beach Comber.” About a third through, bassist Alex Bleeker said as such, “I feel like we can go farther, and push this show into legendary territory.” And they sure came close. That is not to shortchange some of the great songs early on, like “Had to Hear,” “Crime” and “Green Aisles,” which I scrawled in all caps in my notes upon recognizing that opening arpeggio. But once the band got a feel for the audience and their many microphone levels in order, the songs flowed blissfully from one to the next and raised us with them higher and higher, to the point that when it was all over, the band looked sad to go.
The individual members of Real Estate do not appear to carbon copies of one another, in look or temperament, which made watching them live that much easier. Though I could not see Matt Kallman at the keyboard, drummer Jackson Pollis held the rear of the stage with an intensity that matched the deliberate, slightly slower tempo he set and stuck to for the night. Lead singer and guitarist Martin Courtney carried a similar introverted presence, opting to stare into the middle distance as he sang halcyon or else mournful lyrics rather than goof off or move about the stage.
Bleeker fulfilled those duties, being the gregarious one who saw fit to poll the audience for Grateful Dead fans and schmooze about the beauty of Ithaca. Guitarist Matt Mondanile, meanwhile, looked lost in thought during the verses of “Talking Backwards,” where he does not play, and considering he helms a separate band, Ducktails, one can imagine that thought was fruitful. But most of the time he was on the verge of stealing the show, like when he closed his eyes and tore into the simple but lush chords of “It’s Real.”
I’d be remiss not to mention an unexpected star of the night, who happens to not even be a member of the band, though maybe an honorary one at this point. The name “Josh Kay” was shouted right before “Horizon” and popped up every so often to the very end, even serving as the chant that summoned the band’s encore. Like Real Estate and, it so happens, myself, Josh Kay hails from Bergen County, New Jersey, and in an interesting twist of journalistic disclosure, I must admit I’ve known him since high school. He is a senior at Ithaca College with many friends, and while we are not close, we’ve exchanged too many niceties at too many parties, in too many states, for me to not say it was pretty surreal seeing him invited on-stage for the encore.
The band knows and clearly likes Josh, for this was his tenth Real Estate show. I caught up with him briefly after the show and he counted this as one of the best because “they resonated with the crowd.” I’d say that’s accurate, for it is the main reason why a sold-out audience familiar with Atlas and Days ended up, still, so surprised and pleased this great band could be so much better in the flesh.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.