Celebrating the return of live music with Small Black @ the Echoplex on 08.20.21

Well, shit … it’s about fucking time. I honestly had no idea how much I’ve missed live music until I attended my first show in something like 17 months. It feels like a lifetime has gone by.

Last Friday, I had the chance to catch East Coast chillwave act Small Black at the Echoplex in Los Angeles. They’re an indie fav of mine that I haven’t seen in close to six years, with a new pandemic era album “Cheap Dreams” that came out a few months back.

To be honest, I didn’t think this show was actually going to happen. I bought tickets a few months back, when things were still headed in the right direction. Then, as we’re all aware, the Delta shit the fan, throwing everything into uncertainty all over again … even for the vaxxed, albeit less so.

So yeah, I’m still somewhat in a state of disbelief that I actually attended a brand new concert last week, let alone a band I’ve been wanting to see for quite some time.

From what I can gather, live music’s been back in the Southland for close to a month, mostly in an outdoor capacity. A couple of big ones have already taken place, like the mega Guns n’ Roses stadium show last week, and a few Greek Theatre and Hollywood Bowl events peppered throughout the month. I have no idea what the health/safety precautions and/or consequences to those shows have been. But for Gn’R, I’m guessing shitshow is not out of the question.

Small Black’s rather amazing performance was an indoor event, which of course, made me a little apprehensive – the indoor aspect also giving me more reason to think it could be postponed or cancelled. The Echoplex is a fairly small venue, and tends to jam a lot of bodies into its limited capacity – i.e. not the most ideal scenario for pandemic era live entertainment. So I wouldn’t have been surprised if things didn’t go as planned. But then again, I guess the CA economy is truly back to being open … Covid be damned.

I’ll say this much … the circumstances surrounding the show were nowhere near as crazy as they could’ve been – other than say, Live Nation’s draconian security measures to get through the front door. Sure, it was crowded … but not overly crowded. And the Echoplex opened multiple doors to the outdoor breeze, which kept the interior cool and the air circulating. Plus, most people wore masks, behaved respectably, and distanced where they could, which is always a sigh of relief in this day and age.

Of course, let’s not forget that this is a concert, so people are ultimately going to do what people at concerts do – which, quite frankly, I can’t blame them for, given the dry spell we’ve just endured.

That said, I, myself, wasn’t going to jump into the crowd and throw caution to the Covid wind. I opted, instead, to play it safe, finding a decent viewing area to the side, near one of those opened doors, and left it at that, ready to just enjoy an experience that has been lacking in my life for far too long.

Anyway, enough of the pandemic-induced backstory. We’re all going to have one for pretty much any event we chose to attend in the upcoming months. This is mine.

The show itself was really great, and not just because I was ready to like pretty much anything after a near year and a half drought.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve always enjoyed Small Black’s hi-lo-fi synth-gazed concoctions. They’re often pegged as chillwave, and that’s mostly accurate, even if the band members choose not to describe themselves as such. That is the climate they debuted in, circa ’09-’10, amongst many likeminded dream-laced acts such as Washed Out, Neon Indian, Keep Shelly in Athens, Teen Daze, Millionyoung, Toro y Moi, and a bunch of others. So the label stuck.

But since then, I’ve come to view the Brooklyn fourpiece as more in line with acts like Poolside and Miami Horror, beachside celebratory in tempo, still spacey when they want to be, but able to lay down a progressive groove when the laid-back horizontal is better suited for a sunnier incline. They’re still chilled out as ever, thanks to Josh Kolenik’s smooth as silk vocals, and an effortless penchant for hazy, dazed super mellow synths. But there’s also a bit more going on in the background, a relaxed rhythm looking to jump into the driver’s seat and maybe kick it up a notch or two.

That certainly seemed to be the case with their Echoplex performance, which possessed a kind of kinetic energy I hadn’t really expected to see or hear. As I mentioned, I saw them back in ’15 at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood. They’d just released their third album “Best Blues.” But I was going on the basis of their previous ’13 album “Limits of Desire,” and in particular the enigmatic downtempo bliss of the single “Free at Dawn.” That show was a long time ago, and my memory is more than a little faded. But I can say with certainty that when measured against Friday’s show, it’s absolutely night and day.

Small Black seem to have found their groove. Or maybe, I’ve just found their’s. It’s been six years since they’ve been back to L.A., and through some form of minor miracle, they’ve actually managed to keep their tour on schedule since it began at the start of August. Clearly, a lot’s happened in the interim. And it shows.

Small Black, with remaining members Ryan Heyner (guitars/keyboards), Juan Pieczanski (bass), and Jeff Curtin (drums), offered a decidedly energetic and upfront performance, one that really took the chill out of chill wave, and swapped it with an engaging propulsion of heightened rhythm that, at times, qualified more as progressive surfside psyche-party-delia than their characteristic kick-back beats.

Perhaps, that’s always been there. But until this show, I’d always thought it was inferred versus the core backbone to these tunes. It’s refreshing, revelatory, surprising, and most definitely welcome.

So I went a bit crazy with capturing footage of Small Black’s performance. I’d like to say that’s because I really enjoy their music. And that would be true. But I think a big part has to do with my supersized paranoia of losing live shows all over again, particularly after a year and a half of literally nothing. I know that’s probably not the case. Then again, I thought the same thing a year and a half ago. And here we are today.

Small Black kept their focus mainly on their latest LP “Cheap Dreams,” which feels anything but cheap. There’s an abundance of great tracks to this album, all seeming to ebb and flow in effortless laid-back-to-back synchronicity. Live, as I’ve mentioned, is another level altogether, a sonic immediacy of stimulated ambiance and rhythmic dream-gazed bliss that sounds even more relevant in the onstage moment.

I hope that translates in these recordings. I definitely noticed a an uptick in A/V quality with the iPhone 12 Pro, which I haven’t been able to break-in with a live performance since I bought the damn thing. I guess that’s another first to add to the list of other firsts – first show since the start of the pandemic, ditto with the Echoplex, first time Small Black has played L.A. in six years, etc.

This first batch of seven clips covers the “Cheap Dreams” offerings from Small Black’s Echoplex show. There’s the trio of official singles – “Tampa,” “Duplex,” and “The Bridge” – the latter of which boasts one of those progressive builds I ‘ve been talking about, which almost gives it an anthem-like quality. It definitely works in the live forum.

Small Black perform “Tampa” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Small Black perform “Duplex” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Small Black perform “The Bridge” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Then there’s this remaining batch of four from “Cheap Dreams,” which I actually enjoyed a little more than the prior three, mainly because I wasn’t as familiar with them – i.e. I haven’t listened to them as much. There’s “Postcard,” which feels like a immediate single, “Service Merchandise,” a slower number that contemplates shitty past jobs (something we can all relate to), “Driftwood Fire,” a great upbeat synth-wash of a number that again embraces some of those progressive flavors, and “Song to Ruin,” a more subdued straight-shooter to close the show.

Small Black perform “Postcard” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Small Black perform “Service Merchandise” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Small Black perform “Driftwood Fire” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Small Black perform “Song to Ruin” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

And lastly, there’s Small Black’s classic older material, five of which came from “Limits of Desire” – the aforementioned “Free at Dawn,” which also counts as my intro to Small Black, the energetic effervescence of “No Stranger” and “Breathless,” the downright funky “Canoe,” and the classy synth-atmospheric grooves of “Only a Shadow.”

There were also a couple of surprises in between, the most notable being their first ever single “Despicable Dogs” from their ’09 self-titled debut EP, as well as “Boy’s Life,” their self-described song about family, from “Best Blues.”

Small Black perform “Despicable Dogs” and “No Stranger” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Small Black perform “Boy’s Life” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Small Black perform “Free at Dawn” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Small Black perform “Breathless” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Small Black perform “Canoe” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

Small Black perform “Only a Shadow” at the Echoplex on 08.20.21.

That wraps up my first new show of 2021. It feels good to actually talk about something that’s fresh off the press … or stage … or whatever you want to call it. I’ve been so wrapped up in all these old shows for the most of the pandemic, that it’s complete breath of fresh air to write about one that’s actually from right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I love those old offerings. And I’ve still got plenty more to dig into. But more than anything, I can’t wait for the fall concert season to kick into high gear.

Small Black’s exactly what was needed to get back into the live music of the present. Let that trend and continue. Until the next one …