Watching and hearing Near Northeast’s evolution has been a wonderful musical journey. Since 2016, when I first became acquainted with this DC-based quartet, I’ve become a devoted fan of their extraordinarily crafted music.
My first show of 2020 found me at Comet Pizza Ping Pong for Near Northeast’s first show of the year on Jan. 9. Though their set was disappointingly short (the curse of the opening band), the performance was exceedingly polished, including “rehearsed” stage banter between Avy Mallik (guitars), Kelly Servick (cello, violin, vocals), Austin Blanton (bass, volca keys, organelle, pocket operator drum machine, vocals), and Antonio Skarica (percussion).
The first two songs — “Crane” and “Name Form” — were new pieces that were well received by the audience, many of whom were there specifically for Near Northeast. The next song, “Electric,” from their 2019 release, Cabin Sessions, was a gorgeous ballad with lyrics to break your heart (“Don’t think for a minute you’ll get away untouched, don’t think for a minute”). Sung as a duet on the album, Kelly handled the vocals beautifully while the instrumentation, a combination of guitar, cello and Austin’s electronics built slowly to the song’s lovely, subdued conclusion.
“Shadow,” another new song followed, with the short set concluding with the stunning “Shelter,” another new song recorded for the band’s submission to NPR’s 2019 Tiny Desk Contest.
See Near Northeast perform “Shelter” live on YouTube:
Cabin Sessions is a collaboration with Nashville-based Zimbabwean-American songwriter Takunda Matose and represents a departure of sorts from the band’s previous two albums.
Although Avy has described it a “folkie wooden music,” the band channels its broad-based influences into a cohesive sound and statement. Takunda and Kelly combine to produce gorgeous harmonies that, on repeated listening, reveal lyrical and compositional subtleties that transcends Near Northeast’s self-described “melodic-ambient-folky-rock sound.”
Anyone who’s a devotee of David Crosby may find parallels with his debut album, If Only I Could Remember My Name, in that the songs all evoke a sense of place. In Cabin Sessions’ case, that place is the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and Maryland where the album was recorded.
Labels mean nothing, though, for Near Northeast’s music resists genre categorization. Shortly after meeting several years ago while playing a South Asian music festival at the Kennedy Center, Avy, Kelly, and Austin began forming the initial ideas about a band that would build on their respective, and diverse, influences: Indian, Appalachian, Latin American, and American blues rock. The result was their first full-length album, Curios, released in 2015. An eclectic mix of musical styles, the album bursts with talent and ideas, but suffers from a lack of cohesiveness. I regard it as a musical statement constructed of melodic building blocks — from the chunky rock of the opener, “Impala,” to the delicate guitar instrumental, “Point Reyes,” and full-on rock and roll of “Little Sister.”
In 2017, Near Northeast released True Mirror (Etxe Records), the band’s second album along with Indali Variations 1-8, a cassette single featuring meditative ambient music. More ambitious in scope and musicality, the music on True Mirror finds the group working its way through a maze of influences that features compositions and performances that are more challenging to both player and listener.
Along with Near Northeast’s traditional blend of guitar, bass, violin and drums, the album’s song cycle incorporates sitar, sarod, and a mix of electronic sounds. As the band puts it, True Mirror’s “[songs are] at times darker in tone but also more varied in their musical exploration, take Near Northeast’s finely executed indie-folk sound to new heights, with acoustic ballads, electronica-inspired elegies, roof raisers and barn stompers.”
As an example, check out the surf rock inspired “Indali” by Near Northeast on YouTube:
The best, and most rigorous, test of a band is how their music translates to the live setting where one runs the risks of technical crises, performance woes, and a myriad of unexpected disasters. Similarly, live performance gave the songs air to breathe, room to grow and the promise of a spontaneity where the four players combined to create music far beyond the sum of their parts. The common thread running through all of Near Northeast’s music was depth, heartbeat, soul. This is what we heard last Thursday, a band finding, and exploring, a sound that blends all those disparate influences and continues to evolve into a polished, self-assured, and accessible body of work.
Here are some pictures of Near Northeast performing at Comet Ping Pong on Jan. 9, 2020. All photos copyright and courtesy of Mar Caicedo.