One of the acts went away with newfound rock-star status, and one proved it already had that coming in. Those were the two strongest statements made at First Avenue’s Best New Bands showcase on Saturday night, a seven-set marathon that also saw a few untested DIY recording projects come out of the basement and come to life on stage.
Poetic neo-soul singer/songwriter PaviElle French gave the night’s breakthrough performance. Playing to mostly young indie-rock fans who weren’t even sure how to pronounce her name – her male back-up singers took care of that by chanting it – the St. Paul native turned heads as she stretched her deep, powerful pipes in the long, steady-grooving epic “Runnin’.” Her tight, slow-funk-wins-the-race band made a strong impression, too, including bassist Casey O’Brien and horn players Tony Beaderstadt and Cole Pulice, all from Sonny Knight’s Lakers.
While she frequently throws in cool rock covers that might’ve earned her easy applause in this case -- including a Fleetwood Mac cover that would’ve been the second of the night – French stuck to her original tunes, and wisely so. The emotional peak of her set, “Disbelief,” definitively laid out the positive, powerful messages she stands for. Before walking off stage, she seemed to sense the triumphant vibe and thanked her late mother and father for the inspiration as if she had just won an Oscar. There was no acting in this case, though.
Hippo Campus, meanwhile, proved it has already risen well above baby-band status, even though its members are still babyfaced themselves. From the moment fans started singing along to the under-age suburban rockers’ opening tune, “Little Grace,” it was obvious that about half of the three-quarters-full audience was there to see them (a point also hit home by all the X’s on audience members’ hands). But the lads just as obviously showed why they’re one of the buzzingest bands in town. The long, swaying fringe on frontman Jake Luppen’s quirky suede jacket visually matched the elegant, dangly guitar work in "Suicide Saturday.” A new song mid-set showed off a rockier, almost Arctic Monkeyian edge. And the buoyant finale “Bashful Creatures” had the band members and fans jumping up and singing in impressive unison.
None of the other acts came close to matching the energy level during those two sets, but both Tiny Deaths and Warey did impress in mellower, more hypnotic ways. Tiny Deaths singer Claire de Lune (ex-Chalice) and her new live band added more oomph and texture to the trip-hoppy electro-whir grooves of “Oceans” and other songs off her Grant Cutler-produced debut EP. Drummer Jared Isabella especially made a strong difference. Another welcome delineation from the EP was the band’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere,” which Claire dedicated to those who (like her) couldn’t afford to attend the prior night’s F-Mac show in St. Paul -- a reminder that Saturday's $7 cover was a steal.
Warey still sounded a bit tentative musically but already found Channy Leaneagh opening up in new ways as a vocalist. With three of her former Roma di Luna bandmates providing cover, she came out from under the blanket of electronic sonic layering she uses on her voice in Poliça and reached for high notes and dramatic moments sparked by her new band’s stormy sound.
The night’s only misfire was an interesting but confused and surprisingly listless set by the visually colorful Suzie, the glammy synth-rock outfit led by Night Moves’ Mark Ritsema. With Rupert Angeleyes for a third guitarist – who had triumphantly opened for 12 Rods’ only half-great show a night earlier on the same stage – the live incarnation of Ritsema’s recordings got into some light, War on Drugs-type guitar jams. But it never really got out of sluggish mid-tempos or got into any memorable hooks besides the Radio K-favored single “Coffin in Houston.” When a flock of cheerleaders came on at set’s end, it underlined how un-peppy the music actually was.
The final act of the night, ZuluZuluu, similarly came off a bit spaceheaded but was more of a blast, with rapper Greg Grease piling on thickly worded, often snarling lyrics while his DJ-backed band veered between slow, hazy P-Funk jams and psychedelic R&B. It still sounded like an act that’s throwing too much against the wall to see what sticks, but that’s what “new bands” are supposed to do.