Illiterate Light performs “off the grid” at DC9 on Sept. 17, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Many artists and entertainers have found themselves operating on what can be described as a DIY model — some music genres have historically made it a pillar of existence for bands or groups, and today’s digital resources have helped empower what feels like an entire generation of songwriters who’ve built their own brand.
But few musicians might be testing the definition of self-sustenance and how it can shape the nature of their songs with the same fervor and thoughtfulness as Illiterate Light, a blasting two-piece rock duo that got its start not too far away over in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
The team of Jeff Gorman and Jake Cochran has risen to prominence on the indie rock scene in short time, but all the while they have stayed attuned to an inventive approach and one that has helped the duo standalone at a time when it’s harder than ever to do so.
At a sold-out show at DC9 in the nation’s capital the night of Sept. 17, Illiterate Light showed that it’s not only evolving as one of the most explosive, engulfing tandems performing today, but as a thoughtful one establishing a model for how other rock acts might pave a responsible path as recording and touring artists.
Listen to Illiterate Light’s self-titled 2019 studio album via Spotify:
Opening with one of their new tracks, Illiterate Light started the night with “Wake Up Now” and followed with a blistering, pounding version of “American Boy,” the closing track on the band’s acclaimed full-length, self-titled studio album released back in 2019.
With such a gargantuan and glistening sound, this efficient band quickly revealed what has made this band a sensation, even through the tricky pandemic years — Jake’s howling delivery and harrowing chords so dramatically collide, blend and ascend with Jake’s blinding, climactic handling of the drum kit, which he does while standing, making the presentation that much more thrilling.
“We learned a lot,” Jeff said of the pandemic as he addressed the song a few songs into the set. And he excited those on hand, including good friends and family, with optimism for what’s ahead.
“We’ve got an album coming out next year. … All I know is I’ve got my man Jake next to me here. And we’re playing music together. And we’re rolling forward.”
Jeff and Jake plowed through a set featuring some of their favorites and some choice new tracks, like the slamming recent release “Light Me Up,” and they’d ultimately surprise those in the room with an in-the-flesh demonstration of their own desire to perform sans grid power.
Stream Illiterate Light’s newest single, “Light Me Up,” via Spotify:
Having blown up in popularity just before the pandemic, these two hard-working young men — who are also avid gardeners, among other ambitions — have a background rooted in self-reliance.
Their eye for a more autonomous and earth-friendly way of working and living manifested over time in the form of a remarkable project at live shows off in the sticks. For their outdoor sets, Jeff and Jake began using a small generator system that was powered by stationary bicycles being pedaled to the music.
And as all good ideas tend to build on themselves, that brilliant notion led to a high-profile, history-making engagement this past summer at the Newport Folk Festival. At the three-day event, a gathering of some of the most influential musicians from all over the world, Jeff and Jake were given a newly constructed stage all to themselves, one set up with the Quad at Fort Adams and where they’d welcome a list of acclaimed artists to play through a sound system powered by bikes.
At DC9, Jeff told the room that even the name of the band itself was born out of his and Jake’s interests in finding their own light, energy, power.
“We thought, ‘well fuck it, what if we made our own electricity at shows with people riding bikes?’ So, we’d go out every summer all over Virginia and Maryland and bring a bike-powered system.”
After sharing a couple more new tracks — “Heaven Bends” and “Feb 1st” — Jeff summoned the assistance of some friends in the back of the room, who brought in a pair of stationary bicycle bases and two bikes as well.
Watch Illiterate Light talk about the band’s bike-powered sound system via this WNRN video feature on YouTube:
“We tell people all the time: we’re not engineers, we’re not scientists, we’re artists,” Jeff said. “For the next ten or so minutes, we’re going to go off the grid using our own electricity.”
Jeff holding an acoustic guitar and Jake with drums attached to his body, they moved to the corner of the room and stood up on speakers or other gear so they could see the room.
“Twenty to thirty years from now, we want to live a beautiful life, on a beautiful planet,” Jeff told the crowd as it shifted its viewing angle to the rear right nook of the bar.
Performing a stripped down, hauntingly gorgeous take on “Sometimes Love Takes So Long,” the two longtime friends offered up some of their most informed advice, raising their pitch in a harmony that was maybe just as wishful as it was insisting: “don’t make a joke of our hard work,” they sang together and let it trail off so wonderfully.
Taking a breath, Jeff and Jake relished in the moment — quite possibly a first in the nation’s capital — and then Gorman invited the night’s opening act, Virginia folk trio Palmyra, to join them in the corner of venue.
“When we go out on the road, we try to take bands that we love and that we believe in — bands that we love their music and they work their asses off,” Jeff said. “And that’s Palmyra for ya.”
Together, the two bands delivered another piece that could be considered a classic in the burgeoning Illiterate Light songbook, “Growin’ Down,” with members of Palmyra playing right alongside members of the audience, who belted out the lyrics at the top of their lungs.
Jeff and Jake would return to the DC9 stage, pulling off an ethereal take on “Vampire Blues” and a cathartic version of “Better Than I Used To” that both drifted within the small venue space and then slapped right off the walls.
While it wasn’t the first time Illiterate Light has blown the roof off DC9, last Saturday’s demonstration showed that the two individuals guiding the way are striving to make the most out of every step they take together.
Wake Up Now
Light Me Up
Sometimes Love Takes So Long (acoustic, powered by bicycles)
Growin’ Down (acoustic, powered by bicycles)
Better Than I Used To
Here are images of Illiterate Light, along with the night’s opening act, Palmyra, performing at DC9 on Sept. 17, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.