Allow me to begin this story with the fact that I’ve seen Avalon Emerson more than the five times in Philadelphia, which include a post-COVID soiree on the picturesque Moshulu (a literal boat that got rocked so hard the neighbors shut down all like-events for the future) and a festival at a fort where Four Tet (who just did a thing at Coachella with Fred again.. and Skrillex) played a set before Emerson, who took over the main stage for the closing slot.
Big headlining spots are not unexpected for an artist that’s graced the halls of the famed Berghain in Berlin, spun a certain famous “bathroom,” and kicked a pre-party for Movement, one of the longest-running dance music events on the planet and arguably America’s premier techno festival.
All this to say that Emerson, 34, is 1) widely regarded as one of the most in-demand DJ/producers in the world, and 2) quite loved by Philadelphia, where she returned May 6 for a very special show at Warehouse on Watts – a literal warehouse on Watts Street in Philly. This was preceded by two sold out U.S. dates and one in the U.K. At the time of this writing, the Los Angeles show following it would be sold out, too.
However, these weren’t techno show or DJ sets.
Avalon Emerson, with wife and guitarist Hunter Lombard and hometown friend and bassist/cellist Keivon Hobeheidar, is touring & the Charm, the already-acclaimed nine-track record that’s been called a “pivot” from dance to dream-pop. “9 Hot Evenings” (a nod to track 7: “Hot Evening,” a groovy song that could be about an oppressive crush but also climate change) was the name of the tour before by demand they added one (1) to make it ten.
The show’s 9:00 p.m. start first slotted in Dave P., dance music pioneer and founder of the event series Making Time, on the upper floor of WOW; most nights, they open the first floor only. Early for Making Time standards, there was healthy, buzzing attendance leading up to the Charm, Klip Collective’s braintickling light production streaming overhead as local artist Cheeky (the project of classically trained pianist Kaylee Sabatino) took the penultimate spot.
When the rows of the standing room throng turned like flat beads away from the electronic controllers towards the adjacent stage, more analog-type fixings – amps, effects pedals, a mic stand – revealed themselves. Against the silvery DIY-esque background of the set, three musicians, hands closing around their respective instruments, materialized.
Avalon Emerson greeted a happily anxious crowd in the light yet commanding lilt featured on many residency streams and interviews now, which then dove into the set topper: “Entombed in Ice,” a song that sweetly references Dante’s innermost circle of hell.
” Hang the cowards/hang the DJs…” Is it crime to stand still? At an Avalon Emerson show, you can do whatever you want, but what lyrically teases a love song (“While one door closes/Give me forever/Love you forever”) hauntingly gives way to a swaying shoe-gazey contemplation of the consequences of complacence.
Throughout the 45-minute-or-so set, Emerson’s comfort and giddiness to share a stage with two people playing instruments (versus a B2B or the boards) seemed implicit for someone used to subjections of stage-worship, poised high in a DJ booth, but, to that point, there was nothing between them and the audience – the front row of us close enough to touch. They referenced the Moshulu show, raved about Palizzi’s pizza, and boogied to their own tunes in a tour t-shirt with the swan logo and the sleeves cut off, leaning far over the edge of the stage, mic in hand.
An issue at many rock shows in my experience, I was concerned about the discernability of the vocals, which in the wrong type of room or system could turn to mush. Emerson’s singing voice, elegant yet untrained by their own admission, has a warm, crisp quality on the studio recordings, in the slower registers playing nicely with the sweeping lines of Hobeheidar’s cello and Lombard’s jangly guitar. I hoped the live mix would stand up without Emerson on the boards, and gratefully, I heard them (they’re after my little queer heart with this line from song five, “The Stone” – “Life years of déjà-vu/And circuit parties too”) just fine. I’d posted up directly next to and parallel to the stage right speaker (Yay, ear plugs!), and would bop to the middle for pictures, where I was blessed with cross-waves of clear, direct sound.
Can you tell I’m a lyric person? The album, executive produced by Bullion (Nathan Jenkins, who also worked with Carly Rae Repsen) and written and recorded between 2020 and 2022 (during a certain global p*nd*m*c), is full of concise, specifically poetic words, and features one of my favorite uses of the F-word ever on “Astrology Poisoning,” where the sparse, plucky eighties synth is a juxtaposition to the dreadful idea that we’re misplacing our efforts for connection: “These strangers aren’t your friends.”
A little after the middle we got what, for many, was the first taste of this indie rock Avalon: a standout from their excellent 2020 DJ Kicks contribution, a cover of “Long Forgotten Fairytale” by the Magnetic Fields. Released with a music video Emerson and Lombard filmed themselves on a cross-country road trip from LA to NY, it’s a heroic visual story with karaoke style subtitles driving nostalgia against tubular, sunny sounds for a bittersweet pinch that leaves no choice but to listen to it over and over.
“This is ‘Long Forgotten Fairytale,’” they said before turning to their bandmates with open affection. The same producer whose resume is punctuated by big rooms, a residency on BBC Radio 1, headlining sets at global festivals for productions spanning the decades and tempos and getting people jumping (often for hours at a time) is now an indie outfit.
However, go back to their 2016 breakthrough, “The Frontier” (later voted one of the defining tracks of the 2010s by the leading electronic music publication Resident Advisor), “One More Fluorescent Rush,” and/or “Church of SoMa” and see this is a natural progression of brainy, lush, emotional music that’s at once cerebral and visceral. Their 2017 remix of Slowdive’s “Sugar for the Pill” came out on Dead Oceans, the label today occupied by Bright Eyes and Phoebe Bridgers. They’ve always been like this.
A favorite in the short time it’s been online is “Karaoke Song,” a highlight of the night. What was terrific about the live of that song in particular was follow-a-long-able aspect of it, whether you knew the words or not. It felt instantly relatable, seemingly addressed to someone the writer hasn’t stayed caught up with, moving forward in their willingness to ask earnest questions one might be too proud to text out of the blue, but might.
Are you better with your money?
Did you find a brand new favorite karaoke song?
What are you watching?
How is your dog?
Where themes of & the Charm might include coming together, falling away, remembering and forgetting “people and places… loved and left behind,” the vibes are immaculate and just a little bit off. Hookish. They keep you coming back to figure out what the hell “I’ll be a plastic saint/Singing songs about the weather” (“A Dam Will Always Divide,” the very last song on the album with swirling, dissonant sounds that similarly remind me of “Natural Anthem,” the last song on the near-perfect 2003 record Give Up by The Postal Serivce) says about us.
So Avalon Emerson & the Charm bid us thank you and goodbye and told us to leave our bartenders a fat tip and went on into the balmy, twinkling, transcendent night. And as they loaded up their bus, like a real live band, we were lucky enough to thank them ourselves before we watched them drive away, a bandmate behind the wheel, Avalon Emerson in the front seat.
[Author’s Note: It’s far from coincidence that every time I’ve been Avalon Emerson in Philly has been affiliated with Making Time, the experience series by David Pianka (aka simply “Dave P.”). Additional musical support for this show included Zillas on Acid and Mario Cotto.]