mates of state [2010]

Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, CA
1 July 2010

Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. It’s not unheard of, the husband and wife indie rock team, but perhaps no other band (in this particular world) has ever made coupledom the focus of the band as much as Mates of State.

It’s not that Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel explicitly write and sing about being a couple – it’s more that their whole identity (in my eyes) is as a tandem. Their harmonies, their stage presence – it is all about two.

After years of hearing from friends about how great their shows were, and having listened to albums and enjoyed them, but not loved them, I finally decided that it was time. Man, was it time.

Great American Music Hall was buzzing on this Thursday night, the second night of a two-night stand for the couple. People were just a little excited for their set to begin. And for good reason. They launched into “The Re-arranger” (from their most recent album, Re-arrange Us) with a fantastic and contagious energy that brought a smile to my face (a smile that remained the rest of the night).

(Side note: It was this very same amazing energy that the opener (sadly named Free Energy) completely lacked. As it turns out, if it’s legitimate, I’m always happy to pay for it.)

And just when you thought that there would be a dip, the second song “Get Better” kept things moving along splendidly. On the album, I’ve always felt the second half of the song was better than the first – the repeating refrain at song’s end is just a perfect little pop treat. Live, it was even better. Such momentum. Such bounce. Helps when half the venue is singing along.

Speaking of pop, my preconceived notions of Mates of State were apparently a bit off. I’d always thought of them as being “difficult pop”, by which I mean fun music that doesn’t come easy, music that requires some patience and work from the listener. And certainly, their earlier material is much more challenging (frequent key/time signature changes mid-song, dissonance, etc.) than Re-arrange Us, but when it comes down to it, Mates of State truly is a pop band.

This, I believe, is a good thing.

Mention should be made of the bassist and trumpet player / percussionist / incredibly-enthusiastic bald guy who joined Gardner and Hammel onstage for the majority of the set. They were a great addition to the duo and provided musical accompaniment as well as grand sweeping handclaps, when (more or less) appropriate.

Towards the end of the night, Mates of State moved stealthily into a fairly faithful rendition of Belle and Sebastian’s “Sleep The Clock Around”. It was beautiful. It was subtle. It was all the ending I needed.

Sure, it might be a loose connection, but: drummer and keyboards. Poppy. Punky. High energy. Sincere joy. By night’s end, I couldn’t help thinking – it’s like Matt & Kim all grown up.

Post stage-diving years.