With a capacity of roughly 250, Bottom of the Hill is one of San Francisco’s most intimate venues, tucked away in a nondescript corner of the Mission District. With a stage only 10 or 11 feet wide, there’s little room for theatrics, and barely enough room to play. On Tuesday evening, it was up to Milwaukee-based synth-rock band Vinyl Theatre and New York pop-rock trio Against the Current to take ownership of that space and find a way to energize it.
Both bands represent a new wave of artists who established themselves through self-releases on Youtube and Soundcloud before being picked up by a label and sent on a whirlwind of tours. After the success of their respective independent releases, Vinyl Theatre was selected to open for the rapidly skyrocketing duo Twenty One Pilots, and Against the Current has embarked on its own world-headlining tour, despite having released only one EP.
Keegan Calmes, Vinyl Theatre’s lead singer and guitarist, presented the anxieties of touring and watching radio charts and ticket sales and their effect on the band with a surprising openness. “I felt like a fake,” he admitted, referencing the first time he stepped on stage in front of thousands of people when opening for Twenty One Pilots. “Though this is what I wanted to do and I loved it, I felt like an imposter — that I didn’t deserve it.”
The band had never toured before, and the effect of jumping into such large shows was substantial. “We were lucky, because five minutes into the set there was this huge wave of acceptance from the fans, even as the opener,” Calmes said. “But at the same time it made us think we were bigger than we really were.” Since then, the band has been trying to rebuild itself as its members step out on their own.
“All those stressors have just become a catalyst to the next record, which is a little more chaotic,” he continued. “It’s still true to us — I feel like it’s more true to us. It’s made us want to be ourselves more than ever, because people can see through anything else.”
The same pressure and drive for improvement in the live show was present on the tour bus of headliner Against the Current. “There’s a lot that we want to fix for the next tour,” said drummer Will Ferri. “We are always trying to surpass what we did last time, and make it a new experience.”
The band’s current tour takes its members through multi-thousand cap venues nearly back to back with small-cap venues such as Bottom of the Hill. “Each show is what you make of it,” said lead singer Chrissy Costanza. She prefers the freedom the larger stages allow, but she emphasized the value of the smaller venues. “There’s a connection you can only get when you’re pretty much eye to eye with the people and not separated on a stage with barricades.”
Despite the limited space, both bands put on engaging performances. As the second opener, Vinyl Theatre contended with a stage packed with gear, but they exuded a passion for everything loud, exciting and synthy. Their set was full of of catchy rock-driven hooks and energetic drumlines that engaged the crowd. Imposter syndrome aside, the band looked comfortable performing, and its positivity and enjoyment spread to the audience as well.
Against the Current had a considerably clearer stage, and Costanza capitalized on the space — constantly moving, jumping and interacting with her audience (and, at one point, even jumping into the crowd for a chorus). Ferri was a powerhouse at the drums, but guitarist Dan Gow seemed lacking in energy by comparison, one of the few nagging discrepancies that stood out.
Ultimately, despite the insecurities the bands both expressed, their motivation for improvement and putting on the best show possible shined through in their performances, making them refreshingly enjoyable even to those less familiar with their music.
Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected].