These New Puritans Hold the Crowd Rapt at Bowery Ballroom
If you think that slow, pensive minimalist post-artrock can’t possibly be exciting, you’ve never seen These New Puritans in concert. Last night at Bowery Ballroom they filled the space despite the deluge outside and entertained a hushed, adoring crowd with an unexpectedly kinetic, meticulously orchestrated show. The set followed an artfully conceived, steady trajectory from stately unease to something just short of titanic, epic grandeur: what makes this band so consistently interesting and compelling is how they never go over the top, or, for that matter, never waste any notes. This seven-piece edition of the band followed frontman Jack Barnett’s uneasily shapeshifting, slow-to-midtempo, rhythmically emphatic compositions with a focus that was both precise and animated, and as the show went on, Barnett put down his five-string bass and got a chance to croon with a distant angst in much the same vein as Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch. That’s a hard line to walk without falling over into cliche, but Barnett pulled it off.
His band’s roughly hour-and-a-half set made the most sense as a long suite. Guest singer Elisa Rodrigues sang resonant, wary harmonies in tandem with the careful, methodically shifting lines from the trumpet and horn – on album, the band often relies on low-register reeds, so this instrumentation added an ambered lustre to the grey-sky sonics. Two keyboardists, a woman playing nimble, baroque-tinged lines on electric piano and a guy switching between electronic keys, a mixing desk, and drums on one number, intertwined alternately snaking and broodingly pulsing lines. Propelling the outfit with a terse, nuanced brilliance was drummer George Barnett. This is why drum machines suck: all of the parts he was playing could have been pre-recorded and crammed into somebody’s loop pedal. But watching him negotiate Fragment Two with one tricky, almost imperceptible rhythmic and dynamic shift after another, slowly adding or subtracting from the sound, was pure magic. With the split-second agility of a symphony orchestra timpanist and the flair of a stadium rock drummer, he stole the show.
After establishing a slow, marching ambience, sort of the sonic equivalent of a Cormac McCarthy postapocalyptic novel, the pianist led them into the hypnotic spirals of Organ Eternal, one of the highlights of the band’s latest album Field of Reeds, equal parts Terry Riley and Radiohead. An early interlude saw the band running variations on an otherworldly Ethiopiques riff – like Dead Can Dance playing Transglobal Underground at halfspeed – before picking up the pace with a tantalizingly allusive levantine dance that was more eerie cinematic theme than slinky Middle Eastern snakecharmer music. They wound up the show with a nocturnal, slowly crawling mood piece that sent the crowd back out into the rain humming it. These New Puritans are currently on US tour, with shows at Space in Evanston, IL on May 2, the Empty Bottle Chicago on May 3 and the Roxy in LA on May 5; if you happen to be around when they’re in town, and dark, artsy sounds are your thing, don’t miss them.