HOBOKEN, NJ—Indie rock is a persistent little scamp that shape-shifts, mimics, and borrows, a reliable place to dump one’s history of influence and neatly straighten it into accessible, stylish pop without it having to be contextualized or associated with some kind of cultural movement. By nature, it’s a grab bag of mixed results, and showgoers know it. The variety of acts who I’ve watched at Maxwell’s stands for me as proof that the bands in this aging genre who leave a real mark on you will not come very frequently. In the case of The Ugly Club, many seem affected. This headline gig for the Union County quintet was a sendoff for oncoming appearances at Austin mega-fest SXSW, and if that doesn’t speak for itself, you should have seen the crowd eat up each of their selections from last year’s fantastic LP, You Belong To The Minutes. Based on the way they absorbed the two sets prior, I couldn’t really believe that they were hanging out just for fun, or to go to a rock show—they were there to hear songs they loved and knew front to back.
The energy of HelloRadio, tabbed to open the night, was best enjoyed while sprawled on the stair-seats lining the room on the far wall by the sound booth. Their vibe was one of straightforward pop, driven mostly by the energetic rhythm section. Washy, ethereal guitar-work and quiet shy-guy vocals fleshed out what proved to be a sleepy head-bobber of a set, and here is where I felt like the odd man out—I don’t mind that sort of thing. In fact, it’s my favorite. It’s probably safe to say that the crowd was antsy to move their feet, and as a result, they responded impatiently to a pensive, relaxing set that would have elicited far more than lukewarm claps on the right bill. The band delivered their tunes in experienced fashion and had at least a few satisfying, psyched-up moments that brought the room to attention.
Second support-act The Long Faces might have had even more trouble warming up the place, but once again, it wouldn’t be accurate to indict them with sole responsibility. They shared in HelloRadio’s straight-ahead pop, but with an earthen, bare simplicity that let Matt Condon’s lyrical panache take the lead, as the band pumped through hooks and chord progressions with a buoyant rhythm section and dry, gently driven guitars. Songs were well-constructed, if a little generic. Although the performance landed tightly and with confidence, it looked as though the crowd had already checked out, and that may have affected the visual aspect. On the whole, the affair felt somewhat chilly. But in the same manner as the band before them, they were up against unconditional disinterest, and both deserve plenty of love for putting on pro sets in spite of the buzzkill.
Once The Ugly Club climbed up on stage, singer Ryan Egan thanked the crowd for sticking it out through the weather (at this point we were in the opening stages of a nor’easter) and they got straight to work. The lively, narrative, broadly-influenced indie of last year’s LP took over the room and shuffled dormant feet. Their crowd knows them well—these were hardcore fans, meeting musical cues with their pumping fists and spitting out word-for-word lines of lyrics in a collective drunken slur. They were also interesting to watch, be it bassist Rick Sue-Poi’s stoic manner, Egan’s impassioned deliveries, or Joe Stasio soloing (a sight to see). The setlist itself was paced to last: Upbeat sing-alongs like “Loosen Up” and “David Foster Wallace” were carefully slipped between all their twists and turns, such as the wrenching “Unraveling You” or the optimistic “Some Life.” A couple new songs would surface near the set’s end—Egan promised that the kinks would be worked out when they got back, but I didn’t hear any. The band’s pedigree and link to their crowd both appeared indomitable, all night, which suggested that the band could leave a mighty impact in Austin.
I woke up the next morning cleaning snow off my car in Union City and wondering why audiences are sometimes so stubborn. In the end, I blamed The Ugly Club—that’s a tough act to warm up for (imagine following ’em) and it’s why their fans schlepped through dangerous weather to give a warm sendoff. HelloRadio and The Long Faces played catchy, mellow tunes that felt out of context once the crowd came alive for their headliner. Be sure to catch them soon if they sound like your thing, and—if they come back—don’t make the mistake of missing The Ugly Club play a local spot. They are rarely talented entertainers with substantial music and a strong link to their crowd… the sort of band you can’t hold down for long.