Show Review: Washed Out in Charleston, 5/17

I don’t have a list of my top five favorite bands with South Carolina connections. If I did, though, Washed Out would probably be one of them. It blows me away how much notoriety Ernest Greene’s bedroom recording project has garnered him in the last three years or so. “He’s so hot! I love him!” my friend Remy told me. Unprecedented attention for a former USC library employee.

Washed Out, (c) Andrew Harris

Washed Out, (c) Andrew Harris

Ernest Greene bathed in the angelic haze of the spotlight as he delivered the gospel of chillwave to a packed house. He spent most of the night off to the side, while his wife took center stage, playing keys. (At least she looked like his wife. I think her name is Blair. Blair, the mystery girl on the cover of Life of Leisure.) The bassist and drummer were back in the shadows, nearly invisible.

(c) Andrew Harris

Washed Out crowd at the Music Farm, (c) Andrew Harris

On the LP Within and Without, the sounds of Washed Out remind me of the warm sunlight that finds its way through a tree’s leaves, into the coolness of the shade. Greene’s vocals swirl around and seem to evaporate away. But there is melancholy in the music, too. The band’s appearance on stage made that impression well.

With his hair disheveled and shaggy, and the way he had his dark shirt buttoned up to the collar, Greene looked reminiscent of Robert Smith of The Cure. His wife’s hair was up, and she wore a white collared shirt underneath a black vest. A gender neutral outfit, like she worked at a restaurant too expensive to put prices on the menu. Conscious or not, I saw these wardrobe decisions as a subtle nod to New Wave, a movement that  has inspired a lot of chillwave music.

At the Music Farm last Thursday, Washed Out led off with a couple of songs from older material; stuff I hadn’t listened to very closely. But “Amor Fati,” the third song in the set, I recognized (as did everyone else). Greene and co. played a few more tunes from Within and Without and a few more things that were unfamiliar to me.

Initially, I intended to copy down every song in the set. It didn’t take long to give that up in favor of letting myself enjoy Ernest Greene’s voice pulsing through massive speakers. But in the middle of the crowd, not many low frequencies made it to me.  Ernest and Blair seemed over-emphasized in the mix. A prejudice similar to their prominence under the stage lights.

Washed Out, (c) Andrew Harris

Washed Out, (c) Andrew Harris

From where I stood, I could see how the humid Charleston air had put curls in Blair’s hair. But I couldn’t see sweat on Ernest Greene’s face, or get a good look at his expressions when he would sing with his eyes closed. I couldn’t get close enough to capture any of that on film.

Washed Out would really be better in a smaller setting, where the melodies would be softer and the rhythms less muddy. Given the size of the venue, though, there was chemistry among the band that made the experience seem a lot more intimate than it was. I felt it most when Ernest joined Blair during the middle of the set, and the presumed man and wife stood back to back at center stage, playing privately written songs to a crowd of strangers.

It wasn’t just the the band’s wardrobe that reflected the heavy influence that New Wave has had on Greene and the genre he helped create. It seems like Washed Out is drifting away from the “bro, let’s chill” vibe of chillwave toward a sound that suggests a chill in the air and calls for blue lights and dark clothes.

They played two songs for an encore; which two, I don’t really know. The song used in the Portlandia intro might have been one of them. By that point I had had a couple of beers and I was busy trying to work my way to the front for photos. (Side note: if anyone knows a photography major who was at the show, thank her for snapping a few frames for me. I couldn’t catch her name. I think it started with a J.)

I didn’t walk into the Music Farm until shortly after 10:00 pm, but it was 10:30 before the opening act, Airbird, started serving trancy dance/electronica to the hungry masses. A solo project of Joel Ford (Ford and Lopatin), the group’s live lineup consisted of Ford handling bass/laptop duties and a heady Kenny Powers look-alike on the drums.

Airbird, (c) Andrew Harris

Airbird, (c) Andrew Harris

Tight drum beats underneath frenetic electronic drones made Airbird a complementary appetizer for Washed Out. At one point, I couldn’t tell if a looping sample was calling out for “freedom” or “Freebird.” I didn’t really mind, though. It sounded good.

Airbird is touring with Washed Out this month in support of their upcoming EP, Trust, set for release on May 29 on Mexican Summer. (Nerd Alert: Before Washed Out was with Sub Pop, the Life of Leisure EP was released on the same label.)

Between sets everyone took a break to visit each other or the bathroom or the bar or the patio for a smoke. I realized that I’d never been to a show full of so many people dressed so f@#$%ing fresh. Everyone there was someone who has good taste. But the ones on stage, they were the ones who know how to make what tastes good.