This Little Underground: Goodbye to Matt Gersting, Sales’ mystique continues to grow, Southern Fried Sunday goes indie with the Heligoats and Zoya Zafar 

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Photo by Jen Cray

2016 continues to be ruthless to global music icons, but a key figure was also lost here. To the local scene, Matt Gersting was a longtime fixture as a player in notable bands like the Sugar Oaks and an all-around smart fan. Later, he took on stand-up, becoming a vital mover in ushering the Orlando indie comedy scene into its current era of distinction. But to me, he was a friend. Thanks, Matt, for the thoughtful talks and for always making me your bitch in Big Buck Hunter.

THE BEAT

Orlando "It" band Sales has been one of those stories of modern ascendancy that bucks the traditional grind. First, they were beneficiaries of that specious little thing called early internet hype. Then, rather than cut their teeth on their own streets, they opted to do it on the road. Before their recent album release show (April 20, Will's Pub), the last time I saw them play here was almost two years ago.

Different things work for different acts, but Sales has managed to conjure mystique in the way they've conducted themselves so far. I've had more out-of-town music people – all prominent insiders – ask me about them than any band in years. Now, the word is unquestionably out because their latest show maxed the house with bodies and buzz.

Between the 2014 show, where I noted the promise of their music but questioned their stage-worthiness, and now, not much has evolved in their live presentation. They're better guitar players, but that's only inches in such a minimal pop schema. Lauren Morgan's singing is good and is both their music's heart and its most finished dimension. But, curiously, neither their live sonic presence nor their visual atmosphere is any deeper.

Despite all this, however, their music is resonating with people in a way that's truly exciting. And it's testament to their effective musical distillation. But that economy can toe the line between artfully restrained and just plain basic, depending on the context. On record, they succeed by striking the former. On stage, the scales tilt the other way. But with a little more thought and craft, it doesn't have to be that way.

The latest Southern Fried Sunday (April 17, Will's Pub) was one of the most indie editions seen so far, with none of the featured acts sitting squarely on the roots music bedrock upon which the venerable concert series is built. But because of the quality, it worked.

The touring headliner was Chicago's the Heligoats. Although it's a four-piece band live, it's the vehicle of frontman Chris Otepka, an interesting character whose lyrical obliqueness even spilled over into offbeat between-song banter, constantly obfuscating the line between truth and imagination. Making it all even more dizzying are the layers and density of his thoughts, which spark with whim like a swarm of fireflies squeezed into a little jar. In vocal style, he's somewhere in the vicinity between Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel) and John Darnielle (Mountain Goats). In words, he's endearing, funny and perplexing, all in rapid succession, like a sharp mind with a dial stuck on a different frequency and a broken OFF button.

Behind the irrepressible scramble and sprawl of Otepka's singing was the nice counterbalance of sturdy, vaguely rootsy indie rock that motors reliably and knows when to crest and swell with seriousness. They take enough left turns to be colorful but move with a compass calibrated enough to avoid cul-de-sacs. And it was one of those performances that converted the room.

An opening surprise was Zoya Zafar, a relatively unknown local making her debut with both the concert series and the venue. Although she's acoustic, she's not conventionally folk. Her music is minimal but it's not stark, with an atmosphere that's velvet and a voice of real presence. Her warm and sonorous singing exhales the smoke of classic jazz singers. Even in spite of a subdued mien and drift, Zafar's alluring voice is one of those forces that can't help but arrest. She's still developing but, with that kind of natural smolder, she's definitely one to watch.

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