Awolnation is less a rock band than it is an ongoing musical experiment, the brainchild (and alias of California-bred Aaron Bruno, whose Svengali sway over big beats and razor-sharp rhymes blindsided the world some four years ago, when “Sail” went from engaging Megalithic Symphony backtrack to ubiquitous anthem for disenchanted millennials.
The song’s been featured in movies and television commercials, and still crops up regularly on alternative radio. It’s a good bet some soccer moms don’t know Awolnation is responsible for the track; they only know they love it. And it’s even more likely they couldn’t identify Bruno as its author.
The 36-year old front man seems okay thus far with using Awolnation as a sort of cloaking device for his creative efforts. Diehard fans own the records, have pored over the lyrics and liner notes, and are keenly aware Bruno’s the man behind the proverbial curtain.
Bruno was definitely in front of the curtain last night at House of Blues Cleveland, where Awolnation shook a capacity crowd (1,400) with Ragnarok rhythms and electronic sound effects that ranged from to creepy to kitschy. And at the center of the storm was Aaron, bouncing and whirling, huffing and hissing into a microphone wound with red insulator tape, his rapid-fire gospel grazing listeners like rounds from a .50 caliber machine gun.
Kenny “Ya” Carkeet served as awol’s lead architect, fingering chords on a Nord Clavia and triggering samples on an Akai MPC-1000 sequencer on “Run” and “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf),” allowing the unencumbered Bruno to run roughshod over the stage—and off it (the singer went body-surfing very early on).
Yet there was a distinct rock vibe to the proceedings despite awol’s techno core: Isaac Carpenter was a very live, human drummer whose flailing was kinetic and near-deafening, and bassist Marc Walloch and guitarist Drew “Drublood” Stewart” peppered the mix with spicy grooves and serrated, aggro-riffs.
Like Bruno, each man wore a black AN polo and dark pants, lending visual solidarity amongst members. A little variety (and color) couldn’t have hurt, but the “team” feel was undeniable.
So Bruno served as quarterback and cheerleader, calling the shots on Megalithic cuts “Jump on My Shoulders” and “Not Your Fault”—then leading the throng on his vociferous call-and-response choruses (to wit: the Off in my head, lost off in my head refrain of “Windows” and Baby, it’s gold blood, c-c-cold blood chant on “Kooks Everywhere”).
“It’s been a couple years, Cleveland!” he greeted his onlookers some five songs in.
“We had a great time then, but this is evening fucking better!”
Inspired by Kurt Cobain’s angry guitars as a teen, Bruno is nonetheless an unapologetic—and sensitive–singer / songwriter who literally wears his influences on his sleeve (the GRACE tattoo on his left arm is a homage to Jeff Buckley). He fronted punk outfit Insurgence and pre-Awol electro-rock ensembles Home Town Hero and Under the Influence of Giants prior to radio success on the Red Bull label, and the sensibilities of both styles bubbled to the surface at HOB: The defiant “Knights of Shame” called for the crowd to dance like the world is ending (and they did, stroboscopic lights blinding their eyes), while resolute “Kill Your Heroes” encouraged the heartbroken to pick up the pieces and move on.
Bruno’s sandy hair was a sweaty heap by 10:20pm. Squatting—then sitting—on the lip of the stage, he took a breather on ballad (by Awol standards) “All I Need,” letting fans down front handle the brunt of the singing.
“My mirror disappoints me,” he pondered on the letting-go lucubration. “Am I the only one?
Riotous, inflammatory new track “Like People, Like Plastic” called for more dancing—and arson (metaphysically speaking)—and kept the kiddos pogoing in the pit. The backdraft theme continued on grand finale “Burn It Down,” whereon Walloch’s rumbling bass line really coalesced with Carpenter’s kick drum and snare cracks.
Hot single “I Am” (from the band’s latest disc, RUN) proved a fitting first encore: Ticketholders broke out their Bic lighters and cellphones, flooding the club with an incandescence that offset the glaring, relentless spots emanating from onstage in a communal, aesthetically pleasing way.
“Dreamers” saw Bruno and band revert to syncopated, Nine Inch Nails-esque dance-noise. Leaning over his keyboards, Carkeet tweaked knobs and nudged at faders, the resulting oscillations a blissful, sugary frosting on Awol’s cadence-fired cupcake. We counted at least a dozen bodies being passed over the writhing floor section and spilling across the barricade (Bruno’s being the first, albeit in the opposite direction) into the waiting arms of security (who politely ushered the youngsters out of harm’s way).
For most in the audience, obligatory closer “Sail” was an orgiastic, quasi-religious experience. Bruno didn’t have to goad anyone into singing along, but it was fun watching him cue the crowd with a subtle hand gesture or thrust of the mic.
Both opening acts hailed from L.A. (like Bruno)—but came curiously dressed for autumn in Ohio.
Synth-pop quartet Parade of Lights earned a robust Cleveland welcome by sampling tunes from their 2014 EP Golden and 2015 full-length Feeling Electric (out now on Astralwerks). But their frisky first song, “Just Give It Up,” was the oldest in the set, dating back to the group’s 2012 inception.
Wearing black jacket over a dark hoody, bearded singer Ryan Daly was almost too polite:
“Thanks, you guys!’ the soft-spoken singer said after every other tune.
Daly came out of his shell on “Burn” and “Feeling Electric.” Dropping his hood, he strapped on a Fender Stratocaster as drummer Anthony Improgo manufactured tight meters over Randy Schulte’s bass. He didn’t actually play the guitar much (this wasn’t the show for Van Halen heroics), but Michelle Ashley’s keys provided ample melody on the pulsating “Can’t Have You” and “We’re the Kids”.
Schulte parked his bass on a couple numbers in order to double Improgo’s drum bits on a nearby electronic pad. It seemed superfluous—and yet we didn’t notice much bass missing in the Epiphone’s absence, either. Like almost all acts who crack open Apple laptops at engagements, Parade had us wondering how much of their “live” sound was generated by a computer program.
Admittedly, that’s our musical bigotry showing: The HOB crowd loved what they were seeing and hearing—from Improgo’s stick work on his Masters of Maple kit (and Paiste hardware) to Ashley’s Novation synth stabs (and camo pixel pants). And why wouldn’t they? These upstarts have already supported Imagine Dragons and Rooney on tour, so they’ve logged a few miles and crafted a competent, hit-and-run show. Awol’s another feather in their resplendent cap.
Family of the Year featured “unplugged” guitars instead of busy beats and belted lyrics. Led by Joseph Keefe (who alternated between a Takamine acoustic and an electric glitter guitar), the five-piece converted Clevelanders with their indie-rock / folk fare.
Drawing mostly on new selections from their forthcoming third album, the Family harmonized nicely on “Give a Little,” “Great Escape,” and “We Need Love.” Brothers Joseph (lead vocal) and Sebastian Keefe (drums) comprised a sturdy backbone for the jangle-pop of “Carry Me” as lead guitarist James Buckley noodled on a Fender Jazzmaster and comely keyboardist Christina Schroeter tickled her black-and-whites.
We enjoyed summertime romance entry “Make You Mine,” but “Hey Kid” and Spotify smash “Hero” (from the Oscar-nominated film Boyhood) were slam-dunks with early arrivers.
This is a group to watch: Part hippie-Jesus jukebox, part garage band, Family of the Year could enjoy a decades-long shelf life.