This Little Underground: FMF’s new era and live reviews of Dawes, Hiss Golden Messenger, EMEFE and Island Science 

click to enlarge Dawes

Photo by Jen Cray


This week, the 16th annual Florida Music Festival (April 21-23, various venues) takes over downtown like it does every year. But the old festival is sort of new again. And, unfortunately, I'm still not sure everyone realizes it. Beginning with the 2015 edition, the veteran event made a major – and majorly needed – recalibration by shifting its focus back to discovering unsigned talent (instead of washed-up headliners) and making all shows free. Last year, this game-changing news came only two weeks before opening night. Consequently, not enough people took advantage of the windfall. Hopefully, that changes this year.

What's more, FMF has invited TLU to curate a stage once again. And, of course, it rules. See our Selections picks this week (print readers: page 34-35) for full details.


There's nothing especially sexy about Los Angeles band Dawes. Sure, there's a good bit of current interest in slightly indie updates of soft folk-rock, but it's not like it's going to spark an orgy or anything. In defiance of that seeming nonstarter, however, they managed to really own the night at their recent Orlando show (April 12, the Social) with a patient, full-bodied radiance.

More soulful glow than rock & roll flash and dazzle, their sound is all about space, a very particular and golden one. And with songs that are wide, reclined and awash in amber West Coast rays, Dawes occupy that space with impressive warmth and plenitude. Even in the absence of edge or angle, their size, presence and melody lifted the full house without any hint of, or need for, strain. The California dreaming of Dawes is far less about incision as it is about envelopment. And that smooth, easy wind has a pretty undeniable way of surrounding and carrying you away for a while.

Although perhaps just as gentle and soul-stroking, North Carolina opener Hiss Golden Messenger – a band currently on respected indie label Merge Records – comes from a very different place, closer to the fringe. Their alternative take on folk and country music rolled out with an interesting leftward lean, using the relative sparseness of a trio of acoustic, electric and bass guitar to explore some intriguing expression and juxtaposition. And I'm pretty sure more people there would've been impressed had they reserved their dumb, loud socializing for the stage changeover.

Because the basic rundown on what they do immediately shades them long before the verdict is delivered, New York City's EMEFE (April 11, Will's Pub) is one of those bands that presents an expository dilemma. In theory, their wildly inclusive mash of pop, Afrobeat, funk, rock, soul and electronic looks suspiciously fusion. I just shivered writing that. And it is, technically. But unlike the daffy fruit salad that usually comes of such magpie tendencies, EMEFE's groove-based progressive pop sound is a synthesized vision beyond the sum of its parts.

Formed notably by drummer-singer Miles Arntzen – who's a member of the legendary Antibalas and Will Butler's band (of Arcade Fire) – EMEFE is the kind of genre-insubordinate band that's good to see but terrible to write about because their gestalt evades easy language. In their Orlando debut, they came as a full, dynamic and highly percussive sextet. With a modern Talking Heads-esque boldness in style blending, EMEFE kept their many ingredients and explorations in a consistently forward line with a little dazzle, a lot of skill and total body-moving intent.

Opening was Island Science, a local synthpop act produced by Dromes, the electronic alter ego of multi-genre talent Chandler Strang (Saskatchewan, Case Work). Suspended in dreamy, feminine and minimalist atmosphere, their music – which sounds like the xx minus the sex and laser focus – has potential. Unfortunately, the live setting doesn't yet flatter them. With the exception of decent singing, their stage show was rough, rudimentary and tentative. A general live rule for electronic acts like this is that a little stagecraft (fog, lighting, costumes, anything) goes a long way, especially for nascent groups still developing live chops like Island Science. All they need to do is allow some of the considerable visual flair they've demonstrated elsewhere in their presentation to spill onto the stage.


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