Seeing a touring bill during CMJ in New York City is a strange experience. The city is buzzing with sets all across town in 12-hour stretches, and here you come parking yourself at one place for two bands and that’s it. Which actually makes the “sold out” designation for Tobias Jesso Jr. and Wet’s two-night stint at the Music Hall of Williamsburg a bit of a falsehood. Space was clearly left for badge holders, and it was never quite filled even at the height (which actually happened during the openers). You have to brush all that aside, focus on the musicians in front of you, and hopefully enjoy the music. Strictly from a sound standpoint, there’s no better tandem of acts to do that with than the two that took the stage Thursday night. Still, the contrast between them was equally strange.
As semi-local favorites, Wet commanded the bigger audience, just by a smidgen. Perhaps paradoxically, theirs was also the more intimate set. The CoSigned trio’s particular brand of R&B-influenced indie pop lends itself to these sort of close-quarters performances, but it was more than that. Early in the set, singer Kelly Zutrau held up the flowers her sister had brought her and, a few minutes later, tried to hand her friends postcards she had written them a month and a half earlier in London. Caught up on the road, she never had a chance to send them out. The friends made their way down from the balcony and grabbed them a song later, staying up front to watch their friend sing.
And Zutrau has one hell of a voice. Even Jesso would later intimate how inadequate he felt following her. On new song “These Days”, the true height and depth of her pipes was on display. During the chorus, there was strength in her sturdy lows and then a sudden rise straight to the crystal top of her register. She kept tucking her face into her arm as if coughing, but there was hardly a crack in her notes.
While Zutrau commanded the attention of the ears, percussionist Joe Valle was the most technically interesting to watch work. He was so very into the multifaceted aspects of the sounds he was creating, whether snapping the electronic drum pads or thumping his sampler. The nature of the songs required him to be almost constantly on the move, even if it was subtly. His focus was 110% on creating the music, and while the results were 100% of the time impressive, there was also a downside.
When Zutrau’s friends came for their postcards, she began bantering. “I wish we could just stay in New York. I don’t want to keep going.” She pulled back, saying of course the tour was great, and they were having fun and … “You ready for the next song?” Valle asked. Zutrau chuckled, saying, “Are you?” before Valle hit the first notes of “You’re the Best”. But the drive to just hammer out the songs was a bit indicative of the overall too-polished vibe that often overwhelmed the quality of the actual music.
You could also feel it on opener “Deadwater”, a stunning song performed with the utmost proficiency. It’s also their current big hit, though, and you’d expect a little more umph on a winner like that. It wasn’t until the final two songs that you could see them loosening up. Marty Sulkow, intriguing to watch switch between thumbing and picking his guitar even as he occasionally had the capo on the wrong fret, finally started bouncing around during “No Lie”, and his bandmates joined him. Closer “Weak” also saw the band letting loose a bit, and it’s a level they may want to work on more often. The new tracks on display hint that Wet definitely have a few more really great songs in them and more than likely a couple of stellar ones, too. But while the tracks sound impeccable in performance, they don’t quite breath the way songs often want to in a live setting.
I’ve heard Wet themselves say that working on the live show is a priority for them, and maybe now that the album’s completed and they’re back on the road, they’ll be able to find their footing. To be clear, it’s nothing to do with the music — it all sounded damn gorgeous. It just didn’t vary much from record, and sometimes you want a little show with your show. Playing with a guy like Tobias Jesso Jr. could certainly help them learn a few things.
Nothing Jesso played really sounded like Goon. Unquestionably, that was due to his large backing band, DUK. Three horns, a guitarist, bassist, violinist, and drummer, the band brought a whole new level to Jesso’s music. They actually started on a literally different level, performing gypsy second line tunes up on the balcony before coming on stage to welcome Jesso with the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme. Without pause, they dropped right into “Crocodile Tears”, and the difference was immediately apparent.
It was like only ever seeing Matthew E. White perform a solo acoustic show and then picking up his record to hear the wondrous musical arrangements, except in reverse. Songs that were once naught but piano and some electric guitar here or there became joyous, lush compositions that felt more alive than anything Jesso has put on record.
It didn’t erase any of the intimacy, either. “I heard some people talking through that,” Jesso said after a particularly moving number. “If you wanna talk through that, I’ve got nothing for you.” He said he has to pretend it’s like his parents’ basement in order to get through his nerves being on stage, and the chatter didn’t help. Later on, during his solo take on “True Love”, the phrase “pin drop” came to mind.
This sort of directness with the audience was a theme of the night. Jesso was a banter machine, spewing off stories and jokes that often ran as long as his songs. There’s the chance it actually got on some of the band members’ nerves at certain points, and you could see why. Entertaining as all the talking was, it could interrupt the flow of the performance, and when you’re in a groove as a band, you want that to keep going. Still, his riff from “Single Ladies” to a stalkery take on the Jaws theme to drunk mosquitoes in Greenpoint was as impressive as any stream-of-consciousness comedian. And the looseness did provide some strange and wonderful moments, like when the band picked up on Jesso’s joke about The Weeknd and started playing “Can’t Feel My Face” with the trumpeter singing vocals (even though his mic was off).
During that little detour, DUK’s guitarist was practically yelling chords to Jesso, who was fumbling to keep up at first. That was just one instance that revealed exactly how loose the band is. Jesso joked that the drummer often didn’t practice because he was reading for acting auditions (“This is just another acting gig for me,” the drummer shot back) and that any early beats from him were the result. After performing a knock-out version of “Without You”, Jesso elated, “That went better than expected!” Coming out of “Can’t Stop Thinking About You”, which saw the guitarist again feeding chords to the violinist, Jesso said, “That’s the best ending yet!” He previously said they hadn’t yet worked a way out of the song.
However, all that sloppiness didn’t come off as lack of preparation. In fact, it made the songs more than what they are on record, which is gorgeously crafted pop cuts with a great deal owing to The Beatles. It made them something wonderful, playful, and full of life, which is a gift when so many of the songs deal with sad hearts and loneliness. Already made wholly different thanks to DUK, there was an added level of excitement in wondering where any particular song could go next. The band was clearly finding its way through a lot of it, and it was enrapturing and endearing watching them figure it out. It’s the kind of thrill you get when you walk into a barroom band that happens to be immensely talented.
Both Wet and Tobias Jesso Jr are known for writing pretty songs about heartbreak, and both do so with stunning, if not varied, skill. They also both put on solid shows, though for very different reasons. Wet is the type of band that’s going to shine in small, intimate spaces where the tightness of their presentation is going to simply devour a room, while Jesso’s tunes break the confines of their album origins thanks to the added strength of DUK and a haphazard performance style. With time, the former may put together a more striking set, and the latter may record songs with a full band (which he should do ASAP, frankly — it’s just that good live). But — and this is a strange thing to say — the end hope is that Wet never gets too much bigger, and Jesso never gets too much better.