Mutemath at Emo’s: Arena-sized thrills

Mutemath's Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas lights it up at Emo's. (Photo: Nicole H. Berlin)

When it comes to fame, most artists slot neatly into one of four categories: Mainstream famous, indie famous, locally famous and not famous.

Since Mutemath’s arrival about a decade ago, it’s reached and consistently occupied a strange middle ground between those first two categories, a middle ground very few bands ever stick in for any length of time. Mutemath has an indie following, but isn’t the champion of that world that, say, Vampire Weekend is. They’ve never had a No. 1 album on the alternative chart, although their new one, Vitals, is close. If Pitchfork’s search function is comprehensive, the band has never shown up on that popular indie music hub at all, whether in a news item or in a review. They’ve reached the ears of popular tastemakers and had some mainstream success – “Spotlight” showed up on the soundtrack of the first “Twilight” film. But the highest one of their albums has ever climbed on the Billboard 200 is No. 18. And ultimately, if you use the mythology of asking a small group of people at random who Mutemath is- say, five- you’d have to be surprised if more than one had any idea. So the guys whose last album was titled Odd Soul are in an odd place when it comes to fame.

Mutemath’s live show, long acclaimed as one of the best out there, appropriately reflects that commercial limbo, but in the best way possible. Their powerful rock/pop/funk/electronic mix carries the sound and sweep of arena-rock gods, but they consistently play to small and midsize venues – all the while cramming as much of an arena concert experience into those venues as they can. That insistence on not being confined by their stages has helped make Mutemath a consistently incredible and acclaimed live act, something they maintained Thursday with a nearly two-hour performance at Emo’s in Austin.

This was my third time seeing Mutemath live; the last time was four years ago at a now-defunct bar in Kansas City with roughly similar capacity to the 1,700 that can pack Emo’s. Having witnessed those two performances, it’s clear the dedication to putting on a real show in a venue that size quickly endears the band to its audience and sets it apart. Usually, if you go to see your favorite band at a place like that, you come away satisfied if they play their music well and look like they enjoy doing it. I mean, let’s face it: What much else can a band do in a place that size?

Mutemath soundly rejects that line of thinking with a big sound and a light-show scheme reminiscent of performers trying to reach 17,000 instead of 1,700, and with interactive antics that keep them in literal and figurative touch with their audience. I’m not a roadie or a light-ologist, so I couldn’t tell you what type of lights Mutemath is loading the stage with for this tour; all I can do is describe them as roughly lightsaber-shaped bulbs a few feet tall, with the capability to blink or to progressively run several blinking lights up the length of the bulb from bottom to top.

Musically, the New Orleans-originated band are entirely seasoned pros who know how to pace a show and sequence their songs. The energetic portions of their set – like “Chaos,” “Prytania” and the explosive “Blood Pressure” off Odd Soul, or their funky instrumental jam-outs – are balanced perfectly with the slower, more tender stuff like “You Are Mine.” While all four of these guys can play, their personal stage presence ultimately comes down to one factor: The extreme passion evident in the performance of singer/keyboardist/occasional keytarist Paul Meany and often Animal-like drummer Darren King. They’re equal parts performers and entertainers, and on Thursday, they maintained their long-running tradition of connecting physically with their audience. For King, it was giving audience members special gloves that allowed him to create an electronic beat while playing paddycake with them. For Meany, it was two forms of crowd-surfing – first, the old-fashioned way; then, toward the end of the night, atop an air mattress adorned with flashing lights on its sides.

Set closer “Typical,” the U2-like rocker that still stands as one of Mutemath’s best-known songs, serves as both a satisfying finale and a long-standing epitome of what Mutemath is all about. “Can I break the spell of the typical?” Meany asks in that song’s chorus, and for more than a decade now, Mutemath has embraced that self-fulfilling prophecy, both live and on record. After a decade of recording, they may never become truly household names. But whatever house they perform in, they command.

The opener: Nothing But Thieves, a UK alternative act on its first American tour, opened the show with about 35 minutes of fairly straight-ahead alternative rock, making the most of the space they had while essentially penned inside Mutemath’s equipment. NBT performed anthemic recent single “Trip Switch” and worked in a cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” among other originals. Singer Conor Mason sings with impressive power and range, but his somewhat tiresome over-reliance on falsetto supplied the only obvious drawback to Nothing But Thieves’ performance.

Watch Mutemath’s video for “Monument,” off its new album, Vitals:

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