Photo by MATT SHAVER
Despite the frigid wind and snow of a polar vortex—whatever that is—Union Transfer was packed with beanie-wearing, beer-guzzling indie kids last night. At first, the crowd was largely friends and family of opener Arthur, the experimental pop project of Arthur Shea. Shea also plays in Philly band Joy Again, who I’ve been following on the DIY scene for several years, watching them grow from playing in dingy basements to touring with Rostam (Vampire Weekend).
Arthur’s music is surreal and alien, full of bizarre sound effects and skittering pop keyboards. The overall impression is frenzied, like an over-caffeinated kid stabbing random buttons on a video game controller. Shea’s songwriting is manic and personal, the voice of your darkest, creeping thoughts. Tracks like “Woof Woof” teem with paranoia and insecurity. “Julie vs. Robot Julie” wrestles with caving loneliness. Onstage, Shea snuck sips of his Juul, tucking his chin into his turtleneck and exhaling vapor. “This song is about imagining yourself in a different timeline,” he said of “Ivy League,” the poppy lead single off Woof Woof.
Floor-shaking church organs sounded in the pitch dark, announcing the arrival of Amen Dunes. Damon McMahon appeared like a celestial being, his soulful vibrato reaching to the rafters. It’s impossible to make out what he’s saying, lyrics robbed of their meaning, words stretched into shapeless sounds. The set pulled from his breakthrough album Freedom, a work that blends blurred hallucinations and the sharp edge of reality. Songs like “Blue Rose” revive a classic rock vibe with grooving bass and seraphic synths. The band covered “Song to the Siren,” written by Tim Buckley. The groggy rendition sounded like it could have been an Amen Dunes original— everything sort of faded into one endless song, warped by McMahon’s sleepy drawl.— MARIAH HALL