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The Wham City Wave

April 9, 2008

The new Wham City space could be any nondescript, ramshackle ghost of industry in the outskirts of the Station North Arts District. The only indication that a show was going on early last Saturday evening–the space’s first–were a man and woman standing outside and politely hurrying people in. Later, though, when the space was full and those at the door were turning folk away, there was just no hope of being discreet: cars, sharklike, circled the street over and over in search of parking, laughing young people strolled the block, others glided up, near-silent, on their fancy bikes–like one guy whose tight, ivory jeans perfectly matched the immaculate, old-fashioned white walls of his tires.

Once inside, it was up a narrow run-down stairwell and into a small, rough room–the smoking lounge–with a smattering of chairs and just one window smeared with pigeon droppings. The show had yet to start, so people milled about, chatting and wandering into the adjacent walled-off show space: a huge, wide-open rectangle with a high, vaunted ceiling crisscrossed by wooden beams. Tall windows, lining the wall to the right, are painted over with images of fruits on vacation (pineapples skiing and such), and in the dim light the windows shone soft blue, like at the cusp of dawn–a jarring effect when caught in the corner of an eye, making it seem far later than it truly was.

Outsized characters had been painted all along the right side of the space–a charming cartoonish vampire and a cutesy bat thing with eyes that bled black down its chubby blue body. To the left, the walls were mostly bare–better for video projections–save for a glittering gold foam installation, like stalagmite champagne bubbles frothing from the corner, floor to ceiling. There is no stage, so the bands played from the floor, setting up a little to the left or right–wherever they wished, really. The space invites this looseness. It is all very much what you would expect from Wham City: dilapidated, bare function dressed up in scavenged, absurdist fancies, ripe for any whim that may strike. Like some ragamuffin clubhouse, equal parts John Waters Mortville and the studio from the early-’90s children’s show Kids Incorporated.

And the early ’90s were certainly a touchstone with many people in the crowd who harked back to a decidedly grunge, My So Called Life-era of fashion: fuzzy button-up flannel shirts, leggings, baggy tees, droopy knit hats. Further cementing this nostalgia were the bands on the bill, particularly opener Adventure, all clearly weaned on Super NES. Even the Sharpie marker crosses that one got with admission looked an awful lot like Nintendo controller buttons.

Adventure consists of two guys, one tucked up against the golden foam bubbles behind a keyboard wired to a laptop while the other danced in front of an endless stream of psychotronic projections. Both were clad in clinging, white full-body leotards that appeared to melt away in the flicker of images against the wall. While the lithe curly-haired keyboardist rapidly banged out some long-lost Zelda soundtrack, the other, a hearty, barefoot fellow, bounded about with an impressive reserve of unflagging energy, playing the familiar archetype of the Fool–the clown or jester, stomping from side to side on a small, scratchy platform or stepping down to entice audience members to cavort with him. It all made sense, after a bit: the name, the shtick, the beckoning gestures of the dancer. There is a princess locked up on some dungeon mountaintop, and Adventure was set to take us there. Quite simply, it was silly as hell and all the more fun for it.

Next up were Videohippos, complete with their own narrative-free collage of projections and found sound clips. Their set was mellow, pleasantly echoing jangle pop, though the vocals were irritatingly submerged. The ever-growing crowd rallied around, as they did for Health, an L.A. group and the bill’s only out-of-towner. Maybe it was the press of bodies muffling its sound, but Health failed to awe with its trendy mix of electro dance clatters and airy psych-out flourishes.

Finally, for the closing set, was Ponytail. The audience swelled in, giving the band scarce room to set up its equipment. Frontwoman Molly Seigel, of the alley-cat mewls, greeted the crowd with a little hometown love cry, declaring Baltimore the best city in the world, which, oddly, garnered an utterly deflated response. The band left no time to dwell on this awkwardness as it swiftly launched into song. From the first note on, the floor began heaving under the wildly pogoing crush of feet. It was scary, this shuddering that seemed to roll in waves all the way to the far wall, which–if one’s back was pressed to it–shook with palpable minor seismic tremors.

The funny thing, though, is that no one seemed to care. If anything, the crowd went extra bonkers, inching impossibly closer to the already hemmed-in band as if this threat of collapse merely enhanced the excitement. And perhaps it did, in some minute echo of old, curious tales: the aristocrats given over to Caligula-like hedonism during the wane of the Roman empire or the desperate decadence in walled-up medieval cities during the Black Plague. Danger-heightening enjoyment, an old story.

Ponytail has really come into its own with a marvelous tightness and cohesion. The band’s initial charm–the rough, wild blasts of unadulterated energy–has been tumbled smooth, and older songs, from its debut Kamehameha, have been honed into extended, even epic-at-moments jams. There’s something deliciously relentless about this growth: getting better and better with each outing, delivering more fully the promise of music to transport, to forget all troubles–Wham City’s weak floor perhaps, or even one’s own self.

And that post-set hangover, when the audience remains enrapt, hoping that just maybe the band will do an encore or something–those moments when the crowd looks slack and dazed before hurriedly reassembling their composure and finally heading off with an over-the-shoulder glance. This refusal to leave, despite the increasingly exasperated urgings of Wham City staff, is proof of a promise delivered.

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