San Francisco – “Don’t worry, prosperity will knock on your door soon,” bassist Jack Freeman of Jagwar Ma happily read from a fortune cookie fortune during a lull early on in the band’s Wednesday night set, briskly followed by an impromptu reggae version of a few bars from Joy Division’s “Transmission,” cheerily delivered by frontman Gabriel Winterfield. Both of which garnered a mixture of laughter and enthusiastic applause during the brief interruption, which came as the band’s crew tinkered with problematic projection equipment used in displaying trippy visuals that resembled colorful graffiti in motion. Jagwar Ma have only been playing together for a few years, but already the band fills dead air like professionals who are decades deep into a musical career. Given the opportunity, I’m sure the members of Jagwar Ma would have had plenty more distractions up their sleeves, yet after this particular incident, there was barely one second to breathe amidst the band’s booming instrumentation and evocative vocals that carried the show to its conclusion.
The Australian psychedelic dance-rock group took over the stage at San Francisco’s Independent, following a summer filled with overseas festival dates, heading to our shores to play the FYF Festival in Los Angeles. I happily caught the guys at FYF, the setting of the band’s sunny, mid-afternoon festival set being a polar opposite to the dark enclosure of the famous SF venue at which Jagwar Ma performed on Wednesday. The sound was also quite different, as Jagwar Ma’s bold style of synth-fueled rhythmic rock bounced happily around the indoor acoustics instead of flowing freely over grass and concrete, until being tossed away by coliseum walls and beer tents. The focus remained the same however, as the three band members aimed to deliver an exciting set featuring some of the material off the upcoming sophomore release Every Now & Then, due out this October. The crowd was different as well, as the sold-out show brought out the band’s many San Francisco-area fans, instead of a small dedicated crowd surrounded by newcomers, enticed by the frenzy of pounding percussion and parade of zaps and zips brought on by programming whiz Jono Ma. Though the band came on later than expected—most likely due to issues encountered with those elaborate visuals—the venue seemed almost spacious at first, though as the night progressed the floor filled quickly, both with fans determined to immerse themselves in Jagwar Ma’s sunny, electronic bliss, as well as with some of the most inconsiderate concertgoers I have ever encountered, most notably a group near the entrance that spent the entire time taking obnoxious videos of each other and the band, their LED iPhone flash bulbs burning into both the eyes and the collective patience of those around them.
The last time Jagwar Ma was in town was for the 2014 edition of the Outside Lands Music Festival, just as the band was finishing up a tour following the release of the critically-acclaimed debut LP Howlin’, which came out in August of 2013. Lead vocalist/guitarist Gabriel Winterfield professed his love for our fair city, repeatedly saying how much of a joy it is to play “San Fran.” Usually people from SF hate hearing the term “San Fran” (though it’s not quite as bad as “Frisco”), but the audience was so thrilled at the opportunity of seeing Jagwar Ma that we all let it slide (incidentally, I just learned that San Fran is also the name of popular music venue in Wellington, New Zealand). Like the band’s Outside Lands set from two years ago, this show featured a great deal from Jagwar Ma’s debut LP, kicking things off with album opener “What Love”—featuring a slow build and some tribal sounding vocal improvisation from Winterfield—as well as other favorites like “Man I Need” and “Let Her Go.” In the slots between some of the older material came some of the newer material, including the soulful “Loose Ends” (which features the new album title in its lyrics) and the slithering slow-burn of “Say What You Feel,” which evolved from ballad-like beginnings into a colorful inferno of high-octane up-tempo synths. Howlin’ single “Uncertainty” morphed beautifully as it transitioned into “O B 1” from Every Now & Then, the first song released from the album that came with the announcement of the LP back in July. Winterfield’s heroic wailing at the song’s finale carried it with a sense of melancholy as the song reached its apex, illustrating the band’s inherent talents in songwriting in such an energetic style, while still clinging to the nuances of human emotion that can be lost when composing in an almost completely digital medium, such as its own.
The end of the show brought out the band’s penchant for extended outros, as lengthy versions of Howlin’ tracks “Come Save Me” and the illustrious “Four” bled into one another, playing out like one massive fifteen to twenty minute-long song. Winterfield’s voice became increasingly raspy as it turned from sweet melodies to urgent howling, particularly during the chorus of “Come Save Me” and the shouted improvisations during the mostly instrumental “Four.” The latter turned into an all-out dance party as Jono Ma threw all of his worth into the set’s final minutes, blasting the audience into a galaxy of electronic sound that had the entire crowd jumping with glee. After a brief escape backstage, the band returned for a three-song encore featuring two new tracks, the lengthy, churning “Give Me A Reason” (the album’s second proper single) and the unreleased “Ordinary,” before wrapping things up with the bass-heavy echoes of early favorite “The Throw,” whose pulsing arrangements stayed with me long after leaving the venue.
What made Howlin’ such a great success as an LP was the undying pulse that served as the album’s universal heartbeat. While the overall timbres and styles change throughout the imaginative debut, the rhythm stays true, giving the piece a sense of beautiful cohesiveness. Jagwar Ma’s live show does just that, with fewer rests and an electric energy that makes the euphoria of experiencing such a performance inescapable. While we were only given a slight taste of what’s to come with the band’s second LP, that same thumping is still present, though somewhat more erratic and experimental in nature. If Every Now & Then is the prosperity of which Freeman’s fortune foretold, then it will be two-fold, as it is sure to please fans of Jagwar Ma, both old and new alike, yet it is also sure to bring Jagwar Ma the great success it deserves.