Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
August 7, 2015
Lower Dens may be from Baltimore, but singer-songwriter Jana Hunter’s years spent in performing as a solo artist in Houston led to a warm reception Saturday night, with the crowd treating the band as hometown heroes as they played a special set at the Contemporary Arts Musuem. This was the group’s first time in Houston since releasing their third album this past spring, the incredible Escape From Evil. The album found the band opening up their sound with sweeping hooks and pop aspirations while always keeping the songs grounded in their signature subdued krautrock-inspired sound. Lower Dens drew heavily from that record as they played to a tightly-packed, captivated crowd.
The CAMH is no stranger to having musicians host events, covering a wide range of artists from HTRK to Richard Hell this year alone, but it still felt like a foreign experience to watch a rock show in a small museum rather than a club or festival setting. Half of the room was roped off as to not disturb the current exhibits, and the crowd was funneled into one corner of the room as Lower Dens took the stage in the middle. A free event requiring an RSVP, the room was nearly full 15 minutes before the event started, and the line for people trying to get in who didn’t RSVP in time stretched all the way down the building. On a swelteringly hot August evening, it marked true dedication for a group of close to 50 standing lined up waiting for a chance to get in.
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Once the band took the stage, they dove right in, skipping any formalities and keeping the banter to a minimum as they engaged the room with a tight set. While the room was packed and warm, with a large group of people standing to the side or behind the stage hoping to glimpse the band, no one complained or was in any less of a dour mood because of it. Hunter’s charismatic presence commanded the room as Lower Dens played cuts like “Electric Current,” “Quo Vadis” and lead single “To Die In L.A.” leaving strong impressions. Hunter drew laughs when proclaiming in an unassuming fashion that the band would play a few older cuts and that they hoped that would be okay. It was, as the audience loudly cheered at the beginning of a track any time the band reached back to their first two records. The songs from Escape From Evil got a warm reception, but it was clear that many there were longtime fans, thrilled at the chance to get to hear old favorites.
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One thing about Lower Dens’ performance that stood out was how controlled and pointed the band appeared throughout the set. It would be wrong to call the performance effortless, as it was apparent that each song was the result of careful practice and forethought. Instead, it was filled with the experience of a band that has grown extremely comfortable playing together in their five years together. The band never seemed out of step as Hunter’s enigmatic presence anchored the set. Hunter felt at ease during throughout the set with some warm, humorous bits of crowd work, asking where the afterparty was; that led to an exchange where an audience member ended up inviting the whole room to a friend’s birthday party. There was a true sense of camaraderie in the room, as many there were in fact friends of Hunter from the artist’s time here. Hunter remarked on this too, towards the end of the set, thanking everyone for coming and explaining how many of the songs the band were playing were about people from Houston.
There was no encore, as Hunter explained that they would just extend the set instead of leaving the stage and come back, but Lower Dens saved their biggest moments for last. They started with a stellar rendition of “Sucker’s Shangri-La,” the new record's opening track, then went back to “Brains,” the thrilling force of momentum that opened their 2012 record, Nootropics. The song is perhaps the strongest track in their catalog, and one of the great rock songs of the decade so far, and Lower Dens reminded everyone in the room of that fact with their thrilling rendition. After an emotional thank you of the room, the band finished with a slow, menacing take on the Hall and Oates classic “Maneater.” As an outspoken activist who has written at length about misogyny and gender-fluidity, Hunter turned the kitschy pop song into a subversive political statement that was inspired and captivating.
While the performance wasn’t overtly political, the night before featured Hunter giving a lecture about the changes in the past century of artists serving as advocates for political and societal change. Named “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times” from a Nina Simone quote, Hunter examined the history of protest music, covering artists such as Simone, Billie Holliday, Harry Belafonte, Woody Guthrie, and many others. Touching on the McCarthy blacklist of communist sympathizers, Hunter drew a timeline for the crowd analyzing the history and necessity for musicians to be outspoken about political causes they believe in, on whatever side that may be. Admittedly less comfortable speaking onstage without a guitar, Hunter still gave an impassioned, engaging lecture to a group of more than 100 hundr that filled the room even if it wasn’t as packed as it would be the following night.
In all, the weekend was a welcome homecoming for Hunter and the band, and another example of the CAMH doing a good job of recognizing contemporary music as a valid art form. The weekend was a welcome treat for fans of the group and old friends. Hunter may not be a Houstonian anymore, but it felt like a warm welcome home and celebration for everyone there.