Friends/Wild Nothing: Crescent Ballroom, Phoenix, AZ 6/30/12

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It’s the last weekend in June, the time of year when Phoenix dwellers rethink their reasons for living so close to the mouth of hell and are looking for the closest place to cool off or at least forget about how hot it is, and because it is Saturday, several dedicated music buffs or at least the die-hard young and hip of downtown Phoenix ventured out to the increasingly beloved Crescent Ballroom to drink, dance and sweat.

Friends, an eclectic band from Brooklyn, took the stage around 10 in support for Manifest! released earlier the same month.  The opener is a blend of jungle funk sprinkled with high-pitched “oohs” and even though the lyrics were barely discernible, the tempo was high and never slowed down. 

Samantha Urbani, the exotic-looking lead vocalist of Friends,, pauses in between songs to give her reaction to the Arizona desert’s merciless summer climate, “What’s the deal, Phoenix?  I woke up and thought I was dead!”  Capitalizing on the freedom of not being tied to an instrument, Urbani never stops dancing throughout the entire show and continually gestures and smiles while looking out into the crowd. 

The stage is otherwise manned by Leslie Hann, a petite doe-eyed girl who alternates between playing bass and small percussion instruments while singing backup vocals, a drummer standing at his kit behind her, a guitar/synth player to her left and a man parked in front of a tom and strapped to the bass  on the far end.    

Two or three songs in, the blue-lipsticked Urbani hops off the stage in search of dance partners from the audience.  Swimming through the crowd, she finds a woman in the back and pulls her to the stage while singing the chorus for “Friend Crush” very closely to the new dance partner’s face.

Towards the end of the set, Hann points out a tiff in the crowd to Urbani, at which point  the song ends, and Urbani’s off to go mediate.  After an intense discussion that was mostly inaudible, Urbani very publicly chides the offenders for disrupting the good vibes.   “Do you feel like justice has been served? Alright then.”  The show continues with Mind Control, during which everyone on stage raps into a mic for the chorus, and Urbani continues to own the room.

While Manifest! may be only now reaching the ears of the general public, listening to the album at home alone does not do the band justice.  Friends in a live setting have much more R&B influence than the album lets on, and thanks to Urbani’s intense charisma and stage presence, they also have much more energy than expected.  Rarely do performers have that much interaction with the crowd and pull it off so naturally, and what’s even more rare is how much Urbani and Friends seem to be having fun performing.  the show was loud, fun and powerful.  

After a small break, Wild Nothing, a five-piece crew of everyday looking guys with Jack Tatum as frontman, took the stage.  The first few songs had minimal vocal content and were very melodic and mellow.   A bit more reserved and self-conscious than Urbani and Friends, Wild Nothing’s show seemed more music driven as opposed to performance-driven.  Call it shoegaze synth rock with all of the classic Fender  instruments at their disposal.  It was definitely solid music with nothing wild about it.

The crowd livened up about five songs in when a couple of guys wearing similar flannel shirts joined the band on stage and assigned themselves the role of interpretive dancers.  It was otherwise not much different than listening to their albums at home. While Wild Nothing’s music is well-crafted and angelic, they might have gained a more favorable crowd response headlining their own show separately, or paired with more similar opening acts.  As it was, Friends stole the show, even though half the crowd was there to see them.

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