Ought goes bare in stripped-down show at The Independent

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Ought/Courtesy

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Post-punk never died; it just moved to Canada. Assuredly products of Montreal’s DIY music scene, Ought shocked The Independent’s modest crowd into dance the evening of March 20. The quartet easily navigated quiet mania and unabashed happiness in turn, its members never breaking a sweat.

The band is currently on tour in support of its latest album, Room Inside the World, which was played live in its near entirety. The performance demonstrated both the band’s startlingly wide palette of thematic colors and its members’ individual facilities as accompanists and instrumentalists.

But the less-is-more, 90-minute set still managed to throw back to the group’s earlier releases, received with widespread gasps of joy among audience members. The fans in attendance seemed to set the crowd’s mood, their energy infectiously hyping up these mid-set reprises.

As always, the wisdom of the crowd powerfully mediated the audience experience, and this energy likewise spilled onto the stage. Frontman Tim Darcy’s body language changed receptively during these more familiar tunes. He relaxed into his role and became playfully comedic, sometimes teetering on ironically bored in his vocal performances.

The decision to kick off the night with “Into the Sea” — Room Inside the World’s opening track — was an interesting one, to say the least. It could speak to the band’s thoughtful emphasis on its respective albums’ track order, as explained by Darcy in a recent Reddit AMA. “An album can have great songs, but I think great records must have an identity unto themselves, something that is greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.

Ought’s show treated San Francisco concertgoers to that holistic identity, slowly mesmerizing listeners as the songs progressively became more active, energetic and experimental. “Into the Sea” and “Disgraced in America,” more standard indie rock tracks, left space for Darcy’s fleeting, ostensibly political lyrics. Later in the evening, the band took a more experimental turn that engaged other elements of its songwriting talents.

The bubbly intro of “Desire,” played on Matt May’s synthesizer, provided a welcome change while it replaced the vocally expressed melodies of earlier pieces. The moody song leaned on the textures May produced live, in lieu of the nimble choir used on the record. The song’s indulgent final minute felt more like a blissful two. Bass player Ben Stidworthy’s stoic, angular stance finally broke to join Darcy in milking these last chords, much to the crowd’s enjoyment.

Stidworthy, whose style was reminiscent of Paul Simonon’s ever-melodic bass lines, enjoyed his own moments of textural experimentation. The reserved, distorted bassline of “Disaffectation” was turned up to 11, so to speak, in his live performance. Actively modulating an envelope, his bass sounded otherworldly, immersive and wholly alive.

In an album so dependent on audio effects, the select few effects that made it to the stripped-down show were often tastefully exaggerated, leading to moments of delightful shoegaze. Shockingly, all effects laid over Darcy’s voice on the album were eschewed. His vocals were allowed to stand alone, his lyrics comfortably alternating between vulnerability and angst.

Throughout the slow progression of the set, drummer Tim Keen provided the unshakable foundation from which the band’s songs sprouted. His locomotive grooves were inspiringly minimalist, his maturity effortlessly on display. The power of just two added snare hits changed the impact of the chorus in “Beautiful Blue Sky” while still maintaining the track’s unique groove. “Beautiful Blue Sky” is a dance track, as Darcy shyly described before half-launching into a recitation of Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance”: “You can dance if you want to. You can leave your friends behind.”

If anything, Darcy’s shy charisma embodied the whole night — it felt as though each member was always underplaying, each with something always hidden up a sleeve. When Ought came back for an encore, one wouldn’t have been at fault for believing Darcy’s Bay Area quip: “All right! We’re going to do some Grateful Dead covers!”

While fans may have longed for an extended set time, Ought still came through, delivering a show as entertaining as it was mysteriously engaging.

Contact Feroz James at [email protected].