On Wednesday night, SOhO Restaurant & Music Club hosted TOPS and opener Weyes Blood in an intimate concert that marked both acts’ first Santa Barbara appearance. Weyes Blood, the solo project of Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Natalie Mering, provided opening support, while Montreal-based four-piece TOPS headlined the night.
Weyes Blood and TOPS are clearly distinguishable through stylistic differences in their live and recorded sound, yet both share a certain melancholic immediacy that fit the scale and dimensions of SOhO in a way that would have been impossible in many of the larger musical venues in Santa Barbara.
Weyes Blood’s supporting appearance with TOPS was one stop of a tour promoting her forthcoming album, Front Row Seat To Earth, which features a broader scope of collaborators and instrumental layers than her previous work. Despite this new complexity, Natalie Mering continues to write the entirety of her production and lyrics. With such a commitment to the integrity of her work it was only natural that a solo set at SOhO did nothing to diminish the imagination or sheer emotional resonance of her performance.
Mering entered the stage clad entirely in iridescent teal, acoustic guitar in hand, her long, dark hair and equally dark, inscrutable eyes providing a brooding contrast to the extravagance of the same slim pantsuit that adorns the cover of her new album and its two promotional singles.
Her only companion on stage was a looper, by which she laid down backing tracks as a simple foundation for her guitar and vocals. This sparing yet fully realized configuration seemed to define her approach to live music as a sort of organic translation of a song’s essence, specific to the environment of its performance, rather than the impossible recreation of studio wizardry.
Mering’s consummate sensitivity for the shifting circumstances of a performance space became even more apparent as her set list unfolded, revealing an eclectic mixture of original songs old and new and two covers, with an emphasis on uncluttered arrangements that showcased her more traditional folk roots.
Many of the older Weyes Blood tunes played — “Cardamom” most memorable among them — came from her album Cardamom Times, itself less bombastic in production than her other work, which brought the rich, choral thunder of her voice to the foreground.
The audience remained peaceful, seemingly lost in thought, throughout Weyes Blood’s set, as the tragic grace of her lyricism gradually enveloped the crowd, accentuated by the dramatic vibrato of her vocals. She reached a peak of intensity with one of her newest songs, “Generation Why,” sacrificing none of the original’s massive ethereality, before guiding the mood softly back down to a despondent silence with a cover of “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
As Mering slowed and stretched the cadence of the original almost to the point of collapse, she seemed to describe everything that a cover song should strive for—not a simple tribute to a classic tune, but rather an incredibly personal exploration of a work’s deepest emotional core. A sort of emotional exhaustion seemed to reign throughout the room as she closed the song, and her set, with a beautiful, reverberant description of “the echoes of my mind.”
As they waited for TOPS, many in the crowd seemed exhausted, in dire need of an emotional recharge after Weyes Blood’s set. As Ian McCullough, one of the sound technicians at the venue, blurted out, “[It] gives you goosebumps, man…almost makes you want to cry.”
In short time, TOPS gathered on stage to enliven the scene with their unique brand of dark, deceptively complex pop. The band played a similarly eclectic batch of songs from across their discography, stoking the energy of the crowd with favorites from their first two albums before teasing two tracks from a forthcoming album that still has yet to be announced.
The powerful, yet softly textured, sound of their live presence reached its full potential in the intimate space of SOhO’s stage due to favorable acoustics or just well-positioned microphones. The entire group maintained a tight synchronicity in their playing while at the same time expressing a certain tenacity missing in the rounded corners of their studio albums.
Lead singer Jane Penny’s full vocal range wafted confidently to the back of the crowd while her synth hooks came through warm, undiminished in the mix in proportion to the bass and lead guitar. The melodramatic, 1980s-inflected snap of Riley Fleck’s drumming resounded beautifully on standout tracks like “Outside,” where the softer, breathy side of Penny’s singing provided a smooth beginning to the gradual intensification of their set.
The crystalline, almost nasal tone of David Carriere’s lead guitar ran laps of understated virtuosity throughout the set, anchoring the mood for Penny’s hushed meditations on “Rings of Saturn,” before leaping into nimble, bell-toned solos on “She’s So Bad,” sending the crowd into a kinetic, loose-limbed frenzy.
TOPS wound the crowd up with one more classic from a previous album, “Way To Be Loved,” sending those nearest the stage spinning as Carriere’s funky vamped riffs and quacky licks flirted around Penny’s smoky shout. Towards the end they finally unfurled two new tracks with an especially murky palette: “Anything” and “Hollow Sounds of The Morning Chimes,” the former featuring Penny at her most sultry, and the latter providing one of the most somber, contemplative jams yet heard for the group.
The audience made it clear how premature the end felt as TOPS left the stage, and they quickly returned for an encore, breezing through an exuberant rendition of “Turn Your Love Around” that seemed to leave everyone satisfied.
The split bill of Weyes Blood and TOPS filled the space of SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Wednesday with a sort of immediate intimacy and honesty that seemed like a homecoming rather than a first visit to Santa Barbara. With a new record from each on the way, one can rest assured that the emotional impression of the night is far from temporary, even if the reunion is only through headphones.