When Jana Hunter told the crowd at Valentine’s that they were “the most fun we’ve had this trip,” it might have come off as the cursory flattery a band will build into their stagecraft to lubricate the good vibes. And, sure, Lower Dens had only barely set out on a tour that will culminate in Europe and grace both NPR and Pitchfork showcases at SXSW along the way. But Hunter isn’t one to sugarcoat things. Her no-nonsense (even stoical) stage presence and vocal delivery is what distinguished her among the byzantine minstrels of the freak folk movement, with which she got her start, and continues to draw obsessive (if voyeuristic) audiences—even on an off night in Albany, the town where St. Vincent’s booking agent recently told a promoter that “there’s no indie scene.”
Had there been an ironic look on her face, it was indecipherable, as Hunter’s presence (physically, visually, sonically) is becoming increasingly buried by the Lower Dens, a band who felt more like a backing act on their 2010 debut Twin-Hand Movement. With pedal boards, synthesizers and electronic drum pads packed around her and a synchronized light show that left Hunter’s mostly expressionless face in the dark for the bulk of the set, Lower Dens have become a powerful entity in their own right, trading in motorik vamps and gentle surf-rock guitars for squalling shoegaze and delay-drenched psychedelia that leaves Hunter’s voice as a sort of deadpan counterpoint.
“Brains,” the band’s first single from the forthcoming Nootropics, was a notable exception to this shift, couching Hunter’s curt command “Don’t be afraid” in a steady indie chug of shimmering Fender guitars. Those guitars (a lovely Mustang, Tele and Jazzmaster), though, were for most of the night run through loads of reverb and delay and supplemented with synth to create atmospheric washes that hung over Geoff Graham’s metallic bass parts and Abe Sanders’ electronic kick-drum-enhanced postpunk vamps. It was the relish with which the quintet built up these liquid dreamscapes that confirmed Hunter’s stated high spirits. The band seemed visibly inspired to explore their new material, and quickly obliged one fan request for “Tea Lights” from Twin-Hand Movement before closing with a new one that Hunter explained would “feel like five more.” (Note to audiences: Beware what you request, lest you be punished with the hourlong rendition of “My Sharona” that Bradford Cox delivered last week to a Minneapolis crowd.)
Opener Nate Danker treated the early crowd to a polished set of his band’s acoustic tunes, supplementing his breathy Sam Beam-inspired vocals with violin and bowed upright bass. This guy needs to find his way onto more bills. While a less-than-appropriate fit for the bill, Cosmonauts proved their three-Les Paul assault works as well onstage as it does on their excellent new record.