There was a funny moment before Palm started their set at Market Hotel last week. They were supposed to go on at 10:30, but things were running a little late as they had to change over the stage from the previous band. The packed house watched and waited respectfully, but in a high-key of anticipation, until finally it seemed as if all systems were go. Eve Alpert and Kasra Kurt, who both sing and play guitar, had tuned their instruments and set up some compact electronics. Drummer Hugo Stanley had arranged his kit, including an electronic drum pad, to his liking, and bassist Gerasimos Livitsanos had his Hofner "Beatle" bass ready. I literally inhaled, ready for the explosion of sound, when, without any kind of visible communication between them, the band walked off the stage, back through the audience, to parts unknown. "Where'd they go?" I said to the woman next to me, but she was equally baffled.
Somehow, that little moment exemplified what a tight unit and how secure in themselves as a band Palm is now, qualities that were only more on display when they returned a few minutes later and launched into Pearly, the lead track from Rock Island, their excellent new album. That song has been around a while so a roar went up when Stanley triggered the loop that starts the song and every stop-start-stop was echoed in the dancing of the throng, me included. While a recent performance on Soundcheck was a little stiff, there was no hesitation about getting into to the groove onstage. In fact, they were even more supple in concert than on the album, while still remaining furiously locked in. Part of the experience was the sound, of course, with Livitsanos's bass rich and thick, burbling along with each stroke of his thumb, and Stanley's bass drum punching me in the chest.
Even though there's a lot of tricky rhythms and mind-boggling repetitions, everything felt effortless throughout the show. That was partly due to Stanley’s facility, delivering the drum parts with a feeling of planned unpredictability, like a cross between Tony Williams and a classical percussionist. The lightness of the songs themselves also seemed to buoy the band, and by extension the audience, along on wave after wave of bright, shiny guitars and electronics, with sugary vocals by Alpert or Kurt as the icing on top. While Palm hasn't quite reached the hypnotic heights of Stereolab, who knew a thing or two about repetition, or the polyrhythmic proficiency of Talking Heads for that matter, I did find myself having a similar ecstatic response to Palm, closing my eyes and losing myself in the music.
“This is our biggest show,” Alpert told us during her humble words of thanks near the end of the night, confirming my observation that Palm is having their moment. Between this concert and Rock Island (not to mention last year’s Shadow Expert EP, also great) I'm amazed at how far Palm have come from being a Slint-obsessed curiosity just a few years ago to being an essential band, even reinventing the two-guitars-bass-drums template for our era. Let their moment become yours; their month-long American tour starts on February 16th and then it’s on to Europe.
Melkbelly, an arty punk-metal band from Chicago held down the middle spot, employing their two guitars, bass and drums in a far more conventional manner than Palm, often appearing to employ heaviness for its own sake. Sometimes the grinding guitars and shrieking vocals were a little amusing to me, but the band's complete lack of irony seemed to be reflected in the crowd, who cheered enthusiastically. No doubt, Melkbelly are good at what they do, but none of it had the inevitability of greatness. Also, Ad Hoc broke a cardinal concert rule by having an opening act louder than the headliner. Thank god for my Ear Peace ear plugs (unpaid endorsement!), which allowed me to retain enough stereocilia to fully enjoy all the details of Palm’s set.