Plotting a course for “One Night in January,” the eighth installment of our monthly series in which we visit a half-dozen local music hot spots on a single evening, was easy thanks to Free Week. The Red River Cultural District’s annual celebration of the new year offers a perfect chance to sample a broad range of the city’s indie music community along a few blocks of Red River Street. Here’s what we heard:
7:30 p.m.: Light Wheel at the Mohawk. Like several of the venues participating in Free Week, the Mohawk features music on both indoor and outdoor stages. Kicking things off outdoors on a night that grew increasingly chilly was Light Wheel, a trio whose multilayered, trancelike synth and guitar swirls surrounded the dreamy, floating vocals of lead singer and songwriter Tyagaraja.
A modest crowd of a few dozen clubgoers turned out to get their Free Week journey started early. Light Wheel rewarded them with music that was both adventurously creative and broadly accessible, setting a high bar for the evening with a performance that still lingered at the end of the night.
8:20 p.m.: Despero at Sidewinder. Another indoor/outdoor venue, Sidewinder also got things going early with music on its back patio. First up was Despero, a hardcore quartet that plowed straight into a short set for a crowd that grew from a handful to a few dozen by the time they finished.
The group played several songs from last year’s “Somewhere Near the Bottom” album, blitzing fast and furious with guitars, bass, drums and vocals in a half-hour sprint. They paused only for brief and friendly banter with the crowd, revealing a congenial demeanor that contrasted with the aggressive push of their music.
- Free Week listings: Check out all of what’s to come
9:15 p.m.: Sounds Del Mar at Barracuda. Perhaps the biggest Free Week show of the night promised Merge Records band A Giant Dog as the headliner a bit later, but a sizable crowd already had gathered when this quirky indie-rock foursome took the stage. The instrumentation is relatively basic — guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, with two members trading off lead vocals — but Sounds Del Mar puts it all together in a way that makes their music sound quite singular.
One local reference point might be White Denim, though Sounds Del Mar is less jammy as a whole. A tune later in the set featured a guitar riff and twangy vocal sneer that perhaps recalled Joe Walsh in his James Gang days, but overall this is a band that has carved out its own territory, one that’s not always melodically rich but is never lacking in rock ‘n’ roll intensity. They play another Free Week show tonight (Wednesday, Jan. 4) on the Mohawk’s indoor stage.
10 p.m.: Dead Sally at Empire Control Room. After a short solo set from Looming member Jessica Knight on the club’s outdoor patio, Empire cranked its latest Free Week bill into high gear as Dead Sally delivered by far the most entertaining set we caught all night. Adding cello and violin to the basic guitar/bass/drums mix, this charming co-ed quintet stood out from the pack with engaging indie-pop tunes and boundless youthful energy.
Not to mention their attire. Temperatures outside were quickly dropping into the 40s and felt even colder with a stiff breeze, but Dead Sally’s fearless guitarist-vocalist pranced about in a T-shirt and shorts, while his co-fronting violinist-vocalist sported a plaid-pleated short skirt and a tank top. Riffing at one point off of Sheryl Crow, and between songs bemoaning their lack of clever banter (a crowd member served up a joyously rotten knock-knock joke in response*), Dead Sally just had a ton of fun onstage, and their spirit spread to the audience.
10:30 p.m.: Those Damn Eyes at Swan Dive. At first glance, this seemed like a pretty straightforward rock-pop band, with a female vocalist fronting a guitar/keys/drums/bass crew. Singer Meredith Williams’ voice is at the center of songs that often build to a fever pitch and then wind back down.
Eventually it became clear, though, that the major strength of this band is its rhythm section. Bassist Graham Goetz and especially drummer Jake Rabin stand out, driving the sound through sometimes complicated patterns that go beyond standard 4/4 signatures.
11 p.m.: Letting Up Despite Great Faults at Cheer Up Charlie’s. The most accomplished band of the batch we caught on our Red River trek, this trio has issued several records in its decade-long run and has a new EP, “Alexander Devotion,” due out Feb. 10. Their mood-heavy dream-pop soundscapes served as a nice bookend for a night that began with a similar vibe from Light Wheel.
Cheer Up Charlie’s is most renowned for the natural rock cliff backdrop of its outdoor stage, but on a cold night, the venue wisely set up the bands indoors. That made for a jam-packed room (Wild Child’s Alexander Beggins was among those in attendance), but the close quarters just made the atmosphere more festive. The band played off of that, inviting many members of the crowd onstage to dance and sing along for their final song of the night. They have two more Free Week shows: Thursday, Jan. 4, at Swan Dive, and Friday, Jan. 5, at Empire.
Join us again next month for “One Night in February” — date to be determined.
One Night, By the Numbers: The simplest “by the numbers” so far: 0 miles driven (from Point 1 to Point 6, not including to and from home), as all venues were within a walking route of about five blocks. No parking fees, with street meters not running at night on Tuesdays. Admission charges: None, though some venues did charge $5 for minors. (At times other than Free Week, such shows featuring local bands in Red River District clubs generally are in the $5-$10 range.)
* Ah yes, that knock-knock joke: “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Broken pencil.” “Broken pencil who?” “Ah, never mind, it’s pointless!”