“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
That long ago lyric from Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” though now bordering on the trite, nonetheless conveys an eternal truth: All is transitory, change is inevitable, time moves forward.
Near Northeast’s final (at least for the foreseeable future) performance recently at Songbyrd Music House was poignant, celebratory, and ultimately, a triumph. The band’s four members — Austin Blanton (bass, synths-cleverly hidden in the “boopcase,” vocals); Avy Mallik (guitars, vocals), Kelly Servick (violin, cello, vocals), Antonio Skarica (percussion) — will move on to other personal, professional, and musical opportunities. But on a night filled with laughter, smiles, hugs, and most likely, a few private tears, Near Northeast demonstrated why it has long been considered one of DC’s most innovative, accessible, and accomplished homegrown bands.
Beginning with a short set by Teething Veils — a last minute substitution for one of the evening’s original openers — it became clear the July 1 evening would become a showcase for DC’s musical depth. Teething Veils’s lo-fi, “sepia-toned,” stripped down guitar and cello chamber folk contrasted with the soulful, uptempo R&B pop from Oh He Dead, the evening’s second opening band. Performing as a trio, CJ, Andy, and Alex delivered a lively but low-key set that prepared us perfectly for Near Northeast.
I’d snuck a peek at the set list just before Near Northeast took the stage, so I knew what was coming. But in retrospect, I had no idea what to expect. Would the band member’s emotions catch up to them onstage? Would the performance be affected by those unanticipated emotions? Or would it simply be another lovely Near Northeast gig?
From the first notes of the new song, “Name and Form” from NNE’s latest album, Gatherings (2021), Kelly’s vocals made clear that this would be an intense, passionate performance. “Window,” also from Gatherings, featured Avy using a tuning hammer to elicit unique harmonics from his guitar. His vocalizing into the guitar’s pickup added a unique effect that hinted at the experimentation and sense of adventure on the new album. “Flowers,” from 2019’s Cabin Sessions (a collaboration with Zimbabwean American guitarist, Takunda M.) returned to NNE’s baroque folk leanings. The first section of the concert ended with a pair of tunes from NNE’s first album, Curios (2015), with the gentle violin and fingerpicking of “Point Reyes” segueing into “Under the Pines.”
Watch Near Northeast, with Takunda M., perform “Flowers” for its 2020 Tiny Desk submission on YouTube:
“Col,” from True Mirror (2017), exposed us once again to NNE’s experimental, electronic personality. Followed by “Rai” and then “The Ism,” I began to feel transported by the songs, reminding me of the musical journey I’ve taken since hearing this band for the first time, almost six years ago to the day.
On that day in July 2016, the sense of discovery of Near Northeast’s music led me to seek this band’s live performance schedule repeatedly over the next several years. That evolution from a highly talented group of individuals playing interesting, but somewhat quirky, music to the self-assured, bold progressive work that is “The Ism,” reminded me how lucky I was to find this music. A grand, sweeping composition, it consists of several movements, with Kelly’s vocals floating above the musical din.
As Kelly recently put it in an interview last fall with 730DC, “I think one of the ambitions with the new songs was to do more experimenting and try on all the different hats we wanted…We mapped out this song called “The Ism” that travels through a lot of disparate sections and sort of loops in around itself. The spirit was, let’s do it all now.”
Watch the official music video for Near Northeast’s “The Ism” on YouTube:
“The Ism” was followed by an epic performance of “Just Do Your Thing” with its extended outro section leading into the tranquil, soothing “Here and Now,” (both from True Mirror) its lyrics a lesson in living the moment.
“Don’t get angry, just sit and watch the parade,
That’s what I always say, I always say
I don’t think we really find our way,
That’s what I always say,
I always say”
And then it happened. I can count on one hand, out of the hundreds of shows I’ve attended, the number of times when the music, performers, audience, and I merge into one magic moment. It happens only rarely but most of us have felt it. David Ackert, of the L.A. Times, describes “the moment” far more eloquently, “Singers and Musicians are beings who have tasted life’s nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another’s heart. In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone could ever be.”
That decisive moment (to borrow a phrase from another creative medium) came during the closing coda of “Here and Now” as Kelly sang, “You go my way.” In that instant, Austin’s anchoring bass line and synths, Antonio’s prominent, but unobtrusive, drumming, Avy’s inventive and clean lead guitar runs, and Kelly’s cello and violin expert versatility (both plucked and bowed) blended perfectly, the four players united musically, and perhaps psychically, as the song sent chills up and down my spine and brought water to my eyes.
That crystal moment, indeed.
Heading toward the concert’s conclusion, the band went into “Shadow,” from Gatherings, with Avy sharing that the song’s structure is based on a modified pentatonic scale, giving it a hypnotic, Eastern feel not unlike Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” The show ended with “Shelter,” another Gatherings tune that brought us full circle. “Shelter” incorporates NNE’s fondness for a dizzying array of sounds, an infectious folk-rock chorus, and an outro that opens up into a sweeping musical phrase featuring Kelly and Austin’s intertwined vocals and Avy’s distinctive guitar solo, perfectly closed out the main set. The unplanned first encore, “Revival” led into the night’s last song, “Indali.” Indali, a girl’s name from India, means “powerful” and indeed, ending the show with a performance of that song, its pounding surf rock rhythm and lively melody skipping through the room, brought the show, and Near Northeast’s career (at least for now) to a lovely, satisfying conclusion.
Steam Near Northeast’s latest album, Gatherings, on Spotify:
Name and Form
Point Reyes > Under the Pines
Just Do Your Thing > Here and Now
After the difficulties experienced over the last few years by DC’s music venues, a few of which have sadly closed down, the newly relocated Songbyrd is a welcome addition and was the perfect venue for this show. Located in DC’s revitalized Union Market District, Songbyrd is itself celebrating both the end of an era, and the start of a new one in a rapidly growing area of the District of Columbia. The lighting and acoustics are much improved over its former subterranean location in Adams Morgan and whether because of the room’s high ceiling, or the fact that the venue is no longer underground, the sound has more space to fill out-a circumstance that suited Near Northeast’s expansive music perfectly.
Watch the official music video for Near Northeast’s “Indali” on YouTube:
From a personal standpoint, experiencing the evolution of Near Northeast’s music these past few years has matched my own education as a devotee documenting Washington, DC’s music scene. Many of the region’s artists I’ve photographed or written about have moved on, professionally and geographically, as if testing their musical wings. Arguably though, it is precisely this change that feeds DC as an artistic incubator and promotes the region’s musical diversity.
Letting go is one of the most difficult things we do. We long for new experiences, new friends, new lives, but when faced with the actual inevitability of change, we resist. The tendency (and need) to surround ourselves with the familiar is powerful, indeed. It takes courage to venture into the unknown, something Near Northeast’s members have thoroughly demonstrated in their music and no doubt will again as they forge ahead with new musical adventures, professional opportunities, and personal journeys.
As I reflect on Near Northeast’s legacy and its contributions to the District’s musical heritage, perhaps George Harrison’s words more deeply express those feelings of loss, renewal, and constancy inherent in Near Northeast’s final performance.
“Now the darkness only stays the nighttime,
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It’s not always gonna be this grey,
All things must pass,
All things must pass away”
Here are some photos of Near Northeast’s farewell performance at Songbyrd on July 1, 2022. All images copyright and courtesy of Mark Caicedo.