It was Saturday at the ND at 501, a night club tucked away on the Eastside of Downtown Austin. Walking past the unassuming door you might think you were just beside a warehouse or packing plant. It’s the kind of place you’d probably only know about if a friend took you there.
Inside, the ND is a medium sized night club with most of the space dedicated to a dance floor, but there was a balcony area with seats for the more casual patron to look down on the action. The people in attendance, mostly in their mid or late 20’s, were about to witness four interestingly aligned bands for the CD release party for Candi and The Strangers.
First up was a DJ duo named Total Unicorn, and the name is probably the least unusual part of this group. They came out dressed in Moo Moos and wearing orange horse masks with green highlights around their glowing eyes. Yes, their glowing eyes. They had fitted the masks with bright lights to create a very other-worldy appearance, and that’s just the start of the interesting visuals.
As far as the music goes Total Unicorn was perfectly passable electronica that could find a warm home in any dance club in the country but was ultimately unremarkable. However, the visual segment of this multimedia package was striking. As Total Unicorn played their techno/electronica beats, a flurry of strange images were projected on the wall behind them. What was truly fantastic was the brightly colored and psychedelic animations that corresponded with the music. If you’ve ever wanted to see a 16th century trumpeter battle a snake with a baby’s head in space while two horses played music off their Macbooks then Total Unicorn is the group for you. They really had a knack for knowing which images, always displayed with quickly-cut editing, would grab everyone’s attention. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opening group command such a degree of undivided attention as Total Unicorn. I’ve seen some of my favorite bands live but barely remember any details about the set. Though I didn’t really care for their music at all, I have a feeling I’ll remember Total Unicorn in intimate detail for the rest of my days.
Next up was a dance-centric pop-rock band with new wave and funk thrown in for good measure called Rickey Jean Francois (they’re named after a San Francisco 49ers player, so good luck Googling them). Their sound is musically diverse but it comes together well. The band members are energetic and enthusiastic about playing these songs on stage and their excitement caught on with audience members. More than a few people were dancing around and moving to the music.
Francois’s energy wasn’t just in playing their songs; you could see a camaraderie amongst the members that’s always refreshing. Band members would dance around with each other and, at times, sing the lyrics while pointing at a certain member like high school students flirting. Not every track connected with me but as a whole the set consisted of a lineup of entirely solid tracks that have broad appeal and could really catch on in the Austin music scene. If you’re ever looking for a good band to dance the night away with you could do a lot worse than Rickey Jean Francois.
The third band in the lineup for the night was Austin music veterans Masonic. This band, around since 2001, plays finely honed indie pop. It’s pretty apparent that the band is in tune with each other. After all, three of the band members are brothers and the newest band member, Trey D’Amico, has been around since 2007.
The first half of the set seemed to be hindered by some technical problems. Not being very familiar with Masonic’s music I couldn’t pin point exactly what it was but members had to keep making adjustments and at one point lead vocalist Eryn Getty’s quipped about the Moog having a mind of its own. These technical problems seemed to throw the band off for the first half of the set and they didn’t gain any momentum here. Each member seemed to be distracted or just ornery about being in the situation.
Thankfully, whatever technical issue they had came to an end and the band members got back into the groove of things. For the latter part of the set the guitar chords were rocking, the keyboard was catchy and Getty’s vocals went from flat and unimpressive to engaging and exciting. I respect the fact that any musician will probably be an audiophile in some way and artists will be picky about their work, but Masonic shouldn’t have let the technical problems so visibly throw them off base. Thankfully, by the end, they were able to pull it off and hopefully leave a good impression with anyone who caught them that night.
About 12:30 a.m. the band of the hour, Candi and the Strangers, came onstage to play their new E.P. 10th of Always. Candi and the Strangers is a dream-pop outfit that has a humorous and dark edge to a lot of what they do. Most of the time I draw the line for a reasonable amount of synths on stage to two, but Candi and the Strangers pushes it to the max by consisting almost entirely of synthesizers of some kind (the only exceptions being drums, vocals, and the occasional electric guitar). I think most of the time synth overload creates a cacophony but in their case it was more of a carnival of interesting and memorable melodies.
Candi and the Strangers reminded me of popular pop outfits like MGMT or Passion Pit but slowed down and given a handful of Quaaludes. The result is surreal and can be easy to get lost in. On top of their dream-like sound the band performs staring into a projector displaying vibrant reds, yellows, greens and blues. The band members wore eclectic outfits, some 80s hair dos, and gaudy clothing (think sparkly dresses and big jewelry). That, combined with their psychedelic projection, gave the band the perfect visual compliment to their phantasmagorical sound. I keep coming back to dream analogies for a reason; Candi and the Strangers are like one in more ways than one. They’re a group that’s strange, but while you’re sitting there watching them it feels familiar. It’s an act that you should see, and while you’re watching them don’t stop yourself from getting lost in the music.
(Candi and The Strangers performed at the ND at 501 Studios on February 5, 2011)