I was a little underwhelmed by Mates of State‘s performance last December at the Weisman Art Museum, but Thursday night at the 400 Bar it occurred to me that was like judging a sprinter by watching him run while wearing a tuxedo. Maybe you can’t really judge a live band until you’ve seen them while you’re standing in a packed, gaspingly sweltering bar on a linoleum floor that perceptibly shudders with each thump of the bass drum. If they screw that up, then there’s no hope for them.
Mates of State did not screw it up. Core band members Kori Gardner (keyboards and vocals) and Jason Hammell (drums and vocals)—a married couple—played a fast and furious set with support from a pair of backup instrumentalists, exchanging the kind of guilty grins you see characters wearing in the movies when they’re suddenly caught in a car chase and have no choice but to drive the family minivan crazily through the streets at top speed. The atmosphere at the 400 Bar, as the California band played the second packed show of a two-night stand, was so thickly electric that the band actually asked the crowd’s permission to play a “really mellow” song. “Then we’ll play another party song,” said Hammell, “we promise!”
The Mates’ most recent release is Crushes, a “mixtape” of cover songs, and the set featured several of its numbers. The Mates have excellent taste in cover material—so much so, in fact, that they put themselves in losing battles with the original versions. Belle and Sebastian’s “Sleep the Clock Around” is one of the most gorgeously sweeping recordings in all of indie rock, and the Mates’ straightforward cover only echoes its glory. Their cover of the Replacements’ “I Will Dare” was more of a departure from the original, with the chorus slowed down to create the effect of straining effort rather than cheeky frolic, but covering a song from Let It Be is in general probably not the best call for a band you could never imagine releasing a live album called The Shit Hits the Fans.
That said, the shit did hit the fans, and it was good shit. Whereas the pristine sound and genteel atmosphere at the Weisman highlighted the baroque, precisely-engineered aspects of the band’s sound (it took Har Mar Superstar to prove that a show in a museum doesn’t need to feel like a show in a museum), with the muddy sound and sweaty atmosphere at the 400 Bar, the imperative was to play like garage rockers in a parent’s basement—and fittingly, Hammell acknowledged that his parents were on hand. Both performers did a lot of sweating and even a little bit of screaming, Gardner swinging rock ‘n’ roll’s silkiest head of hair this side of Hanson. The encore concluded with openers Free Energy (permanently down-and-dirty, the Philadelphia band with a core of native Minnesotans thrilled the crowd with their set and were named by Hammell “my favorite band right now”) joining the Mates for an onstage percussion-fest. It was a bangin’ end to a jumpin’ night of hot pop music.