Photography by Gabriela Plump
Even for a Tuesday night, Bowery Ballroom on the Lower East Side was pretty empty. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but for an 18+ punk(ish) show, this crowd was older, respectful. Before the openers, each individual stood in his or her own orbit. It was the anti-scene.
Maybe Ought’s music just hasn’t reached this far south. The foursome formed in Montreal three years ago, marinating in the DIY scene of the Mile End District and the 2012 Quebec student protests before releasing their first album, More Than Any Other Day in April. (None of its members are actually Canadian, but how many bands from Brooklyn are composed of only New Yorkers?)
Or maybe their brand of post-punk bends slightly towards the academic. You’d certainly think so if you walked in during Nat Baldwin’s set. The former Dirty Projector stood starkly on the stage with his upright bass, loose horsehairs spitting resin from his bow as he filled the rapt room with simple melodies made richly complex by the majestic instrument. “That’s a lotta vibrato,” the Harvard-educated dude next to me said, and the vibe was instantly set. We could have been at a museum, a gallery opening, or a college town coffee shop.
Deferential to our respectful orbits of introspection, Ought started off with the slow-build of “Today More Than Any Other Day”. After two minutes of measured, lingering instrumentals, singer-guitarist Tim Beeler spoke-sang the opening line, “We’re sinking deeper. ” Most of the crowd seemed to know what was coming next as the song’s tempo and dynamics spiraled out; its nervous energy punctuated by lyrics like, “Today more than any other day, I am excited to feel the milk of human kindness.” Privately, this line, and others like it in the album, elicits a chuckle. Live, it’s immensely satisfying to see a group of earnest young guys caricaturing their own earnestness.
Beeler, though endearing and charismatic, is not a vain frontman. He’s so young and wiry, he makes you want to do something active, or rather, activist. The group simmered with collaborative idealism, absorbing the audience in its air of inclusivity. They dressed without flair, and overall appeared comfortable onstage, communicating with ease. It made sense considering Ought’s bandcamp bio reads, “everyone’s in the band.”
They kept the energy up throughout the eight songs on their LP. The standout number was undoubtedly “Habit”, during which Beeler’s David Byrne-esque vocals teetered enticingly between frantic and fraught. Everyone was dancing with youthful enthusiasm, even though there were no kids around. Orbits crossed. The room grew warm.
And then the most plausible reason for the thin crowd dawned on me. It was midterms at NYU.