Touring to promote their acclaimed debut album, “Stuck on Nothing” (produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy), Free Energy’s ’70s sound worked even better live. Onstage, the band’s glam era T-Rex, Sweet and Mott the Hoople influences are even more pronounced. Riffs are what made those ’70s acts what they were, and practically every song Free Energy played, like “Bang Pop,” was undeniably catchy. An early set cover of Springsteen’s “I’m Going Down,” at first seeming misdirected, ended up really getting the late arriving, all-ages crowd going.
Free Energy has learned the art of stage presence, as practiced by ’70s- era rock bands, well. Lead singer Paul Spranger’s moves were reminiscent at times of Joey Ramone, partly because they’re both gangly, Mick Jagger’s foot stomps and New York Dolls’ singer David Johansen’s pose of hanging mock wearily over the mic stand. Lead guitarist Scott Wells stepped out to the front of the stage during his frequent short and to the point solos — just like ’70s guitar heroes were practically required to do.
The vocal harmonies, often four-part, blended well. The band’s songs are top notch, their musicianship solid. Throughout the show, Free Energy displayed a brashness that seems rare, at least in indie circles. Given the band’s relative youth, it’s somewhat expected; given their potential, it seemed totally warranted.
Any fears that Mates of State might have difficulty following all this were put to rest immediately with the first song of the set, “The Re-arranger.” This band calls this their Summer Crushes tour and is partly to promote “Crushes (The Covers Mixtape),” available on their website. Throughout the tour, they’ve performed covers by Daniel Johnston, Girls, Tom Waits, Belle and Sebastian, Death Cab for Cutie and the Replacements. Still, the delighted howls of recognition that greeted the band’s own songs were a strong indication of how popular Mates of State has become.
Backed for most of their set by two additional musicians, one on bass and another on trumpet and additional keyboards, drummer Jason Hammel and keyboardist Kori Gardner got the crowd dancing (well, the ladies anyway) from the start.
What sets Mates of State apart from some keyboard-dominant bands is that Gardner and Hammel’s vocals and the songs’ melodies are the focus. The keyboards are used for coloring and occasional rhythm, not the main sonic component. Playing a mix of well-chosen covers and their own material, along with some clever stage banter, made for a show that Gardner and Hammel honestly seemed to enjoy performing.
Even before the four- song encore, most of the audience looked pretty damn happy, too, some even singing along. Both Free Energy and Mates of State played solid, highly entertaining sets. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night or start off a summer.
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Mike Long is a Longmont-based writer and comedian and a regular contributor to Reverb.
Anya Semenoff is a Denver-based photographer and an editorial assistant at The Denver Post.