SAN FRANCISCO — Bay Area favorite Geographer‘s Noise Pop show Thursday at The Independent was a glimpse of an artist in movement: Experimenting and changing, yet confident of his own skills and fully in command of his voice. Mike Deni has one of the best rock falsettos out there, and his tremendous vocal range is complemented by a prolific and varied output as a songwriter and the talented musicians with whom he’s able to perform and record.
The set began with “Life of Crime,” from 2012’s Myth. With gritty synths pulsing, Deni jumped to get the crowd stirred up and coax a vocal response out of a room that was clearly excited to see him. This was followed by one of Geographer’s breakout singles, “Verona,” with its head-bopping melancholy, from 2010 debut album, Animal Shapes.
Early in the set, the mix was dominated by a heavy low-end of drums, bass and bassy synths, which kept the energy pumping but rolled over a few nuances. The mood and mix shifted as the lights turned red, and Deni performed a new, unreleased song that was dark and full of longing, even flirting with some down-and-dirty R&B vibes with trap drums snaking in. This was followed with “Read My Mind,” another new track, the first from new EP Alone Time.
One of Geographer’s strengths is his sheer variety of textures and arrangements, and as the lights went down, Deni’s fragile, soaring falsetto was accompanied only by organ. The singer called for it to be even darker, saying he wanted it to be like when he wrote the song—a recent theme he’s cited in interviews is the solitude of writing music, contrasted with the outwardness of performing it. Toward the end, the lights came back up and the band drove the song ferociously to its end.
The next song featured a haunting cello solo from Joyce Lee, which was accompanied by a gritty guitar hook by Duncan Nielsen. Geographer’s sound, as is often the case, is harder-edged and rawer live than on recordings. But with his incredibly slick and well-produced sound, it’s actually a nice contrast to hear rawer, yet still rich and textured, versions of these songs.
While the band was tight and focused, there was still some room for experimentation. Deni busted out an extremely cool live sampling of his own voice during an instrumental breakdown on “Original Sin.” On “Walk on the Moon,” he slung on a saxophone and proceeded to build a fat brass pileup from some adept live-looping.
The set wouldn’t have been complete without “So Low,” his newest single. A mellow anthem to that self-reflective buzz that fails to cover over all the things that are broken, “So Low” has a chorus that could serve as an informal motto for California in the Trump era: “I’m high as a kite, babe/ So why do I feel so low?” In the song, Deni paints a picture of a 3 a.m. flaneur, whose heart is as open as the bars are closed, worrying that “everything I make is stolen, and every good day’s just borrowed.”
The musical high in the room, though, was a lot less ambivalent: Geographer’s fans know that the best feel-good music is the kind that’s sad and sunny at the same time. The crowd was not going to let Geographer off without an encore, and after the walk-off and loud applause, the band came back to play s song Deni said he hadn’t played since 2010: “Paris,” with massive waves of synth that were fun to hear at full volume. As the encore tacked in a newer direction, with the 2015 track “Age of Consent,” off Endless Motion, Joyce Lee’s cello, clearly rendered with haunting echo, sounded super-cool. Deni repeated a melancholy refrain: “I lost you.”
But he sure didn’t lose San Francisco.
The night opened with Outer Embassy‘s heavy, retrofuturistic synths in a set that remixed ’70s sounds—from hints of psych and Afrobeat to Pink Floyd and at least one hard disco beat straight-up Beegees-style. Big bass lines had the crowd starting to move as the venue filled in.
Emily Afton, a supremely confident performer rocking a pink pantsuit, followed. Afton stilled conversation when, on the second song, her smoky voice was twinned with piano to dramatic effect. Elsewhere, her band showed a fuller sound, often throwing down syncopated rhythms for Afton’s voice to sinuously wind over. Though Afton’s major vocal influences appear to be drawn from the cream of R&B, there were shades of Blondie in some of the dancier jams.
Andrew St. James, whose band started in with cascades of sound before shifting into an energetic number, cut quite a figure. He wore all white, with flowing hair and a delivery reminiscent of Bob Dylan—or a more contemporary Dan Bejar of Destroyer: point-blank singing to get the poetry out. Touches of experimentation were welcome, like the glockenspiel and synths, but overall the band explored a familiar sonic terrain drawing from various feel-good tendencies of the ’70s, with bright analog synth and guitar rock.