San Francisco – Silence can be deafening. It brings fear to those who suffer from pressure-of-speech. It is angelic to those who seek it, yet demonic to those who aren’t used to it. As composer John Cage – famous for composing and entire song made up of musical rests called “4’33”” – once said, “what we need is to fumble around in the darkness, because that’s where our lives (not necessarily all of the time, but at least some of the time, and particularly when life gets problematical for us) takes place.”
It’s rare to be in the presence of true silence. There is always something happening within our heads, within our minds, that prohibits us from experiencing this sort of soundless phenomenon. This Tuesday night at San Francisco’s The Independent, I came close to witnessing true silence: it happened several times over the course of the evening as I stood astounded watching Son Lux perform before a sold out crowd.
Son Lux is not necessarily a newcomer. Their front man Ryan Lott released his first album (At War With Walls & Mazes) under Said Moniker in 2008. He has also enjoyed success with the two LPs that succeeded it (2011’s We Are Rising and 2013’s Lanterns). Lott even joined forces with indie-folk sweetheart Sufjan Stevens and Chicago rapper Serengeti in recent years, forming Sisyphus (fka s/s/s). The multi-genre group released their debut (and perhaps only) self-titled LP last year. This year, Lott decided to go a different route with his own material, recording with – and subsequently touring with – drummer Ian Chang and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, rounding out Son Lux into a full band rather than a solo act. This metamorphoses works beautifully on the new LP Bones, and also makes for one hell of a live show. I’m not one for hyperbole, but this is one of the best shows I have ever been to. Period.
After an energetic opening set by the delightfully idiosyncratic Alaskan synth-pop musician Olga Bell, Son Lux took to the stage as the threesome that recorded Bones: Lott on lead vocals, assorted synths and percussion, Chang on drums, and Bhatia on lead guitar. The bespectacled trio drew the crowd in with a throbbing intro that bled into Bones’ lead single “Change is Everything,”. This is where I first noticed the incredible silence: at the tail end of the song, as Lott and his crew drew the number to a close, the crowd was absolutely rapt – no chatter interrupted the song’s final moments. There was just…stillness.
Of course the crowd erupted into enthusiastic applause afterwards, as they did after each of the ten other songs the trio performed. More than half of the set was devoted to the newer material, including “Undone” and “Now I Want.” Lott took the time to recognize that not only had this been a monumental week for Son Lux (Bones was released just last Tuesday), but also for our country, referencing the monumental human rights decision related to same-sex marriage that occurred on June 26th . He appropriately dedicated “Your Day Will Come” to “us – you and me.” Olga Bell came back onstage to provide backing vocals to another Bones track – “You Don’t Know Me” – as well as another, older track, “Lost it to Trying,” which closed out the main set.
Son Lux treated the audience to a few other older tracks, namely Lanterns tracks “Easy” (featuring some baritone sax beats on a drum machine) and “Ransom” which came earlier in the set. Perhaps the most enthralling song they performed was their version of “Stay,” a track lifted from the first LP At War With Walls & Mazes. The version they performed was particularly heart-wrenching and just plain old gorgeous. It started out with a gentle, jazz-infused keyboard/synth intro that delicately seeped into a ballad-like rendition. Lott’s hushed, sweeping vocals matched with Bhatia’s spacey guitar brought to mind the lovelorn echoes of Jeff Buckley. As the vocals died away for a brief moment, Bhatia’s shredding reminded me of Buckethead’s seminal album Electric Tears. At the song’s conclusion, the crowd was once again dead silent as a few – including Ryan Lott himself – wiped away tears before the thunderous applause consumed the venue.
Going from a solo artist to a group project does not seem like it would be the easiest thing to do, but for Son Lux, the opposite seems true. They make it look so effortless. The way they interacted onstage made it seem like they were all communicating telepathically, as each performer took to their respective roles like a well-oiled machine. There were no gaps, no mistakes, no questions of balance…everything flowed smoothly, seamlessly which is perhaps why the audience was so enthralled. Each member shined brightly in their own element: Bhatia is a master guitarist, whose talents illuminated the stage especially during improvisation; Chang, on drums, punctuated each measure perfectly, timing each rhythm like a master comedian does with punch-lines. Lott, of course, was epic on vocals, offering urgency and bruising sympathy and was the main focal point as he massaged his keyboards with knowing grace and fortitude.
When Son Lux encored with Bones track “This Time,” the audience was shaken and ignited as the lines “We are the ones/this time” were repeated over and over again. The silence had fallen by the wayside at this point, but it was not forgotten. That stillness will stay with me forever. Never have I seen such a young band command such power over a crowd, and I surely hope it is not the last time such a thing occurs in my presence.
To quote Cage again, “The emotions – love, mirth, the heroic, wonder, tranquility, fear, anger, sorrow, disgust – are in the audience.” I felt all of these emotions while watching Son Lux, and I know I was not alone.