“One time when we were opening for the Pixies, I told this really bad joke,” Julia Cumming confides. “It was our first time playing a set for a large seated crowd and I said, ‘This must be what it feels like to be a movie.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that must be one of the weirdest things I’ve ever said’, and now I’m saying it again.”
What might have seemed like a bizarre observation to make back in 2017 now doesn’t seem so strange. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we can only experience live music in the same way we would crash out to a movie or binge the latest Netflix hit – eyes glued to a screen. Bands like Cumming’s Sunflower Bean, who usually spend most of their year on the road, have been forced to pivot to one-off livestreams rather than long tours; this makes these digital shows feel more like when a new film hits a streaming service – a different kind of event.
For Sunflower Bean’s “movie”, they’ve taken over New York venue Le Poisson Rouge. It’s their first performance in 11 months and their first attempt at bringing their usually ferocious live energy to our digitally dependent current existence. Despite their opening with the stomping, snarling ‘King Of The Dudes’ and the criminally underrated ‘Fear City’, things feel a little muted. Every artist might feed off the energy of their audience, but that’s especially true of Sunflower Bean, whose normal gigs aren’t complete without Julia ditching her bass, picking up her mic and jumping into the crowd.
This being the best band to come out of New York in the last five or so years, though, the trio (plus live keyboardist Danny Ayala) are hardly going to stay in tame territory. The swirling psych of ‘2013’ serves as a turning point – a chance to truly blow the cobwebs off and step into a more familiar, playful presence. As Cumming and guitarist Nick Kivlen form an echo of each other, Ayala steps to the front of the stage and holds his hand to his ear, egging on an imaginary audience, before return to run in circles behind his keyboard.
Early track ‘Rock And Roll Heathen’ keeps the momentum going, Kivlen taking on vocals and bringing a spikier, more louche spirit to the sludgy riffs. ‘Crisis Fest’ feels like the perfect soundtrack to the last few days (and years) in America, Cumming and Kivlen rasping in unison: “A thousand men in uniform / Kicked down the doors of my concern.”
“We’re gonna slow it down ’cause we’re really excited so we’re playing a little fast,” announces Cumming at the point in the set where the pit would normally be gagging for a little breather. The switch in pace lasts just long enough for dreamy versions of ‘Easier Said’ and ‘I Was A Fool’ (which itself sounds pulled straight from an ‘80s movie soundtrack), and a special cover of Neil Young’s ‘After The Gold Rush’, featuring drummer Jacob Faber nailing a tender sax solo.
There’s no time to linger in the beauty of Sunflower Bean’s reworking, though, as a sudden burst of noise bursts through the room and Cumming instructs everyone watching at home to “get those steps in, get that dancing in” for the show’s big finale. ‘Come For Me’ comes out swinging, not least when the singer bellows: “We’re Sunflower Bean from New York City, the greatest city in the world. No pandemic can stop us, no domestic terrorist can stop us.” Latest single ‘Moment In The Sun’ is a gorgeous reminder of what’s really important – cherishing our time with those we care about, especially in these dark times.
Over the last 10 months, livestream shows have presented something of a problem for artists. If you don’t have the luxury of tons of funding or a gigantic fanbase, flashy production is an expense too far, but simply turning up and playing can fail to translate through a screen in the same way it does when your audience can feel every note moving through them. Sunflower Bean’s first foray into digital gigs proves that, while you’re still never going to capture the same visceral spirit of a sweaty, sticky rock show online, great music – just like a great movie – will always be able to make its power felt.