The quadruple-bill performance saw Gemma Laurence, Jackson Crook, Foley, and the Racquets at their spookiest
A pedal steel guitar rests on a keyboard bench, spotlit as though it were the star of the show itself. The instrument’s distinctly country sound is recognized by avid listeners of the genre’s greats, like Karen Dalton and Lucinda Williams. Frankly, this is a device rarely mastered by those under 40, niche tastes aside. Nestled in the corner of the basement of the East Village’s Berlin Under A—a New York mainstay for underground indie bands—the twangy console becomes an omen for the impending show. Mere moments after I’ve entered, the cellar-like venue fills with costumed audience-members, eager for the Halloweekend quadruple-bill performance, in which all the musicians are fluent in the type of sound a pedal steel guitar gives off.
Gemma Laurence and her band open the show dressed as cow-boygenius, presenting a bespoke sound that feels like a down-home riff on the output of Phoebe Bridgers’s four-piece rock outfit. A self-described folk musician (Laurence interrupts her set to explicitly remind the audience of this identifier, as though her emollient vocals weren’t evidence enough), she embodies the traditional aspects of the genre—soft kick drums, delicate guitar licks, and, of course, that iconic steel pedal thrum.
The instrument is then wheeled away, letting the vocal stylings of one Jackson Crook shine—a self-titled purveyor of “blue-eyed soul” with a tremendous falsetto. After a finger-plucking, heart-wrenching introductory song, he launches into a series of highly dexterous keyboard- and synthesizer-heavy tracks, all about love and loss: from anecdotes about meeting up with girls in parks, to yelping pleas for them to stay just a little bit longer. Several ladies in the audience sway along with the intrepid singer, spellbound by his swagger: While costumed only with a synthetic blonde mullet, Crook may as well be a wizard enchanting the opposite sex.
Crook’s band ends on a silly-serious cover of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—a fitting segue into Foley’s set, a theatrical, guitar-forward wall of sound. The quintet explores classic rock and country with teeth bared, sometimes literally: the frontman gripping the microphone for dear life, raking his fingers through his hair like a madman. Foley’s musical range has a nearly tactile presence. A song about a difficult conversation between lovers (featuring a Johnny Cash-esque second bridge) bleeds into another on the continent of Antarctica—a tonal shift which, for another group, would feel contrived.
The Racquets’ garage-rock version of the Scooby Doo theme song cuts through Foley’s organized chaos—a reminder that the evening is indeed dedicated to Hallow’s Eve. The band’s fast-paced diddies contain multitudes: The strings section frequently harmonizes with the lead singer, carried by bouncy percussion, like riding a horse in an old Western. Saddles blazing, so to speak, the Racquets jump from the anthemic to the melancholic, a tumultuous volley fitting for a band named after the tennis implement.
Though united by the spirit of country—from its instrumentation to its general pomp—the Halloween performance resists categorization. In the artificial glow of Berlin’s green, orange, and purple LED lights, costume revealed more than it concealed, and the impending holiday provided the perfect excuse to let your hair down, stomp your feet, and experience some great live music.