If you think twee pop is dead, go to a Slaughter Beach, Dog concert. Rest assured, you will encounter more awkward, Midwest-artsy, greasy-haired white guys in Dr. Martens and tiny beanies than you ever thought existed in the Detroit metropolitan area. On the night of Saturday Nov. 4, Saint Andrew’s Hall crawled with them.
In fact, two of these guys took the stage just after 8 p.m. They’re called Bonny Doon, and they sang in raspy harmony with slow, drawn-out melodies and warm guitar chords that I described in my Notes app as “kind of depressing.” With lyrics that don’t do justice to the emotion with which they were sung and a complete lack of stage presence, Bonny Doon’s set dragged on.
Their lack of enthusiasm made even less sense when, a few songs in, they told us very dryly that they were from Detroit. Most artists would at least act excited about a hometown show. Not Bonny Doon.
“We grew up going to shows here, so we’re just like you,” the one in the turtleneck said. (Did they say their names? I don’t remember). “And when you look at us, it’s you in the future, so I hope you like what you see.” There was a sparse smattering of applause. Personally, I was not not sure I did.
Bonny Doon was exactly what an opening act should be: like the headliner but a little worse. As unimpressive as their stage presence was — I wrote in my notes, “It’s like he’s dissociating while speaking to us” — their folksy, mellow, Bright-Eyes-for-the-2020s sound was just good enough to get us excited for the real thing, like an appetizer that doesn’t spoil the entree.
The entree, of course, was Philadelphia-based indie rock band Slaughter Beach, Dog, on tour following the September release of their fifth studio album, Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling. As we milled around listening to their pre-show playlist, the band members themselves crisscrossed the stage prepared their equipment. It was the first act in a night that became all about humility. When the lights came up, five of those same awkward hipsters greeted us from behind their mic stands — retro haircuts, corduroy blazers and all.
The set began slowly with a few milder tracks from the latest record, but older favorites like “Gold and Green,” “Your Cat” and the band’s biggest hit, “Acolyte,” really got us going. The crowd didn’t dance, per se — Slaughter Beach, Dog’s target audience is fittingly shy and earnest, much too inhibited for moshing. But the enthusiasm was there. When lead singer Jake Ewald told us, “If you can whistle, now’s the time,” during “Acolyte’s” dreamy instrumental, I saw a few teenagers with nose rings following his orders.
Ewald barely sang and sometimes sing-talked, decorating quintessential indie rock beats with bashful honesty and deft, illustrative songwriting. Guitarist Adam Meisterhans took his job very seriously — the solos he was awarded several times throughout the night elevated the show to a capital-P Performance. And bassist Ian Farmer was a funky fan favorite, to which all he had to say was, “Hi…Hello.”
But it wasn’t about them — that much became clear when Ewald, three or so songs in, asked for the front lights to be turned down on the band’s faces. From then on, they were awash in darkness, outlines silhouetted by the smokey blue air. They weren’t doing stand-up between songs, though they were funny in their sheepishness. Ewald first asked us, “Are you awake?” and then requested we rate their performance out of 10 on our fingers. Pairs of outstretched hands went up all around the room.
Slaughter Beach, Dog is not a group of rock stars. In fact, it’s a bit like if the little boys from “Stranger Things” were an indie band instead of a D&D club. As performers, they were slightly uncoordinated and not particularly dramatic. When prompted, they gave us an encore and then left again without a word. But they were sincere, and at the end of the day, talented. For the few hundred delicate millennials and high schoolers with shag haircuts that composed their Saturday night audience, Slaughter Beach, Dog’s music spoke more than enough for itself.
They shouldn’t be rock stars. If you came to a Slaughter Beach, Dog show looking for rock stars, you’d be in the wrong place. But if you came looking for music, real human music, and artistry to which fans can genuinely connect, you would have hit the nail on the head.
Daily Arts Writer Nina Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.