While thanking the crowd for coming out last night, Morning Benders’ frontman Chris Chu informs us they’ve played “12 or 13 shows in New York the last couple months. That’s a lot.” That is a lot. Since spring, they've graduated from supporting slots at the Market Hotel to album release shows at Cameo Gallery and Mercury Lounge to headlining gigs at Music Hall of Williamsburg. Then there were opening slots for the Black Keys at Central Park, a free show at Governors Island, and, in between, a clusterfuck of SXSW performances and months spent on the road. Their show at Cameo the night of Big Echo’s release was packed to the gills, and Chu seemed nervous, meticulously going through the album like he was balancing a book on his head. Now, eight months removed, they finally got a show on their own terms.
Tonight, he seems at ease. His voice is strong. He's dressed in head-to-toe black, looking like a hipster CIA agent crossed with a 9-year-old boy. He has some new dance moves too; lots of going up on his toes and turning his knees inward. Like their beautifully crafted antiqued pop, the show seems carefully planned. Songs like "Cold War (Nice Clean Fight)" and "Hand Me Downs" take their time, slowly rumbling into an ecstatic Vampire Weekend pop moment or a grooving psych-tinged wall of sound. His three bandmates (including his baby bro on guitar and keyboards) have never been a showy bunch, functioning more like a backdrop to Chu's charm, but they seem to be jamming out a little harder, acknowledging the tour's final night in their newly adopted hometown. Plus, their harmonies shine, proving themselves good singers in their own right.
Chu mentions that they were thinking about playing a cover song for us — how about Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams?" (Totally called it.) He makes for a surprisingly good Stevie Nicks with vocals that carry a light sharpness in them. Twin Sister's Andrea Estella joins him onstage mid-song, and things sort of fall apart when they lean into the mic to sing tandem — they look like the odd couple; she, a fluff ball in a Lady Gagaian wig and oversized sweater; he, the tall CIA man-boy — but, whatever, it's all in good fun. Next comes the not-so-fun heady stuff. "Pleasure Sighs," while showcasing the band's knack for restraint and atmosphere, is essentially an energy-sucker in a live setting. "Stitches" seems to move at a particularly glacial pace. A minute into it, I check my watch; the girl next to me checks hers, but I come to think this is all part of the Morning Benders' big scheme. Layer by layer, it turns into an epic fit of tumultuous noise with Chu dramatically falling to his knees — a highlight of the show; it just took a while to get there.
"Excuses" comes at the end, their shining beacon of light among viral videos and grandly orchestrated pop music to boot. Remember this? They basically reenacted the video: the instruments dropped out on cue, Chu harmonized with the crowd while mini Chu and the bassist handled the baritone "ba dums." People in the audience waved their arms back and forth like we were at a 1960s prom, until the guitars swelled again and, somewhere, Phil Spector smiled in his jail cell. It ends with the three of them on the floor, twiddling with pedals until the vocal loops eventually trial off. "I want to remember this forever," Chu said before the song started. I don't know if I'll remember it on by deathbed, but I bet I'll remember it when it comes time to make my year-end album list.
The Morning Benders
Photos by Nadia Chaudhury