By Zachary J. Bardou
On February 12, Philadelphia-based post-rock outfit Lotus kicked off their 29-date winter tour in Richmond, VA at The National, with their first performance since two electrifying shows aboard this year's Jam Cruise in early January. Later this year, they will play Bonnaroo and Miami's Ultra Music Festival for the first time, make return visits to Wakarusa and All Good, and get to work on their fourth studio album, suggesting that band has come a long way in the last decade. Their performance last Friday night proved it.
Bassist Jesse Miller says that, when the band first formed nearly ten years ago, they leaned heavily on simple grooves and improvisations, a formula that proved imminently successful on their 2003 live album Germination. “That was a good way to learn how to play together, how to play to a room and how to try to ride that room's energy,” Miller said Friday night before the band took the stage. “I'm glad it came out the way it did but I think we've moved on to bigger and better things.”
After marching out in single file to the blaring of the Olympic Cantata, a nod to the opening ceremonies taking place in Vancouver, Miller laid down some sampled rhythms, and the band got things going with a lively dance-inducing version of “Suitcases.” The synthesized beats, drummer Mike Greenfield, percussionist Chuck Morris and Miller, now on his bass, merged into one rich, multi-layered chocolate cake of a rhythm section.
Miller and brother Luke abandoned their guitars briefly in favor of the darkly digital squawks and squeals of their synthesizers during “Molluskunk” and guitarist Mike Rempel lent a bluesy feel to “Nematode” before the swelling jam departed completely from the original material, bubbling, building and exploding into a strobe-lit, pounding groove. It was dance music, but so much more.
“To me there are so many interesting things about all kinds of music,” Jesse Miller said earlier. “Whether it's the type of swing that's on a hip hop beat or a really simple chord change in a blues rock song that might come into play for Lotus, it's something we can try to incorporate and capitalize on.”
The crowd bounced to the Kraut-like “Lou Carcohl” and swayed entranced during an atmospherically meandering version of “Livingston Storm” that evoked the rave chill out rooms of the late '90s. On “Tarasque,” the band blended hip hop and hard rock, employing sampled lyrical snippets and breakbeats, before closing out the set with an intense, ever expanding version of “Juggernaut.”
Before the show, Miller had cited the recording of their 2006 studio album The Strength of Weak Ties as a compositional turning point for the band. He said he set out to write and record an album at the same time, consciously making use of a variety of studio recording techniques in the compositions.
“We kinda said, 'let's not limit ourselves to what we can currently do live, let's write around the studio.’ Now we are able to take all these studio ideas, not necessarily straight traditional instrumentation, like using samples and using a variety of sounds and bringing that into the composition, then playing it out live, developing it further and then coming back into the studio.”
Lotus opened their second set with a brand new song entitled “Lead Pipe” that featured an assortment of lyrical samples from the Beastie Boys' “Root Down” and peeling lead guitar work by Rempel reminiscent of the metal stylings of Buckethead's Gorgone. They followed with a blistering blend of funk, techno and prog-rock entitled “Bellwether.” Luke Miller employed a vocoder in conjunction with his synthesizer to fuel a recurring quasi-vocal melody that Rempel reprised to cap off the song's monstrous guitar-driven climax.
The band put downtempo dub, a yawling guitar riff that smacked of Pink Floyd's “Breathe,” and more proggy improvisations into the “Blender,” then opened “Did Fatt” with extended sampling of a discussion on atoms and subatomic particles that coupled with eerie digital sounds. The voices of Luke Miller and Rempel's guitars seemed to frolic across the soundscape, at times in unison, at times wheeling on and twirling about one another like a sonic helix.
Without missing a beat, the band used a reggae-infused outro to seamlessly transition into a “128” that stretched on for an intricately textured fifteen minutes, while the blue blaze of roving, probing laser lights captured fleeting glimpses of blissful faces amongst the beat-thrilled throng.
Lotus returned to trip-hop n' roll one last time with “Golden Ghost,” before closing out the second set with a sprawling version of “Jump Off,” full of a variety of improvised themes and impregnated with thick, sweet funk. Bright lights illuminated the thrashing, screaming crowd as the band rained down layer after layer of tension and release, building to a last savage crescendo that earned a roar of appreciation from the crowd as the band left the stage.
Bigger and better things, indeed.
“We came from humble beginnings,” Miller said earlier. “We first got together at this tiny Mennonite school of about a thousand people in Northern Indiana [Goshen College] and worked really hard, growing the band into what it is now. You don't have to have all these things provided for you. You don't have to come out in New York as the hip band. You can work your way up, playing quality music and working your ass off, getting out there and hustling it.”
The mob on the floor banged the security rails loudly. Chants of “We want more!” and “Lotus!” clamored and reverberated off the rafters. The quintet had set The National ablaze.
To cap off an unbelievable show, the band returned to encore with “72 Hours Awake” and “Spiritualize.” The former, a mellow but deliberate number, provided a great preamble for the latter's final surge of furious group improvisation that featured a beautifully integrated 30-second tease of MGMT's “Kids.”
The flood lights bathed the whole crowd in illumination one last time, perhaps the band's gesture of gratitude to an audience that had raged right along with them all evening, and the band finished off their tour opener with one final, emphatic peak.
Concert Review: Lotus @ The National
By Zachary J. Bardou