By Joseph Golfen
Better than: a sauna, but not by much.
The little, wooden stage at the Modified Arts was sweltering. The air was still and thick with the type of humidity that rolls in with the monsoons every summer.
“I know you guys probably get tired of bands coming to town and telling you how hot it is here, but it’s really, really hot here,” said Grant Badger, bassist for the Seattle power-pop band Little Pieces, as he looked out at the sweaty masses. Badger and his band mates, along with three local acts, braved the staggering heat to put on a night of great music.
The evening began with Gilbert band The Guestroom, whose somber folk songs evoked the work of Iron and Wine or Damien Rice, complete with plinking guitars and vocals from both genders.
The peaceful tunes were a good fit for the night as the heat found most of the audience sitting on the floor for some relief...at least until Alaska and Me hit the stage.
Hailing from Show Low, where Saturday’s high was 82 degrees, Alaska and Me ignored the temperature and turned the volume up. The group featured the type of earnest vocals and driving guitars usually found in emo groups like Taking Back Sunday, though their music was too varied to land them purely in such a narrow category.
The most interesting song of the night was the closer, which the band says will be featured on their next EP, a concept album about the Old West. Keep an eye out for that one.
Even sitting down, it was clear that the crowd enjoyed the performance. Cheers filled the little brick house at the end of every tune, and when the singer asked people to clap along, nearly every hand came together to carry the beat.
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The pace of the evening returned to the sleepy, coffeehouse atmosphere it had started with when Sydney Sprague took to the stage. Performing a stripped-down, two-woman show with just acoustic guitar and a driving bongo allowed Sprague’s confessional and often moving songs to take center stage.
Having just released her debut album, You Got to Start Somewhere, Sprague’s quiet and likable stage presence had her captivating the ever-growing audience with emotionally honest songs. Her super-sweet stage persona may have been deceiving, though, as some of her songs contained lines about killing ex-boyfriends with chainsaws and knives. The wry smile she held during these lines expressed a hint of sincerity.
Combining the same mixture of Pixies-era indie rock and off-kilter pop tunes as his former band Sunset Valley, Herman Jolly’s nasal rasp lead the poppy Little Pieces through an excellent set. The group members seemed cheerful and talkative in the face of the constant heat and the still sitting crowd, many of whom had been at the show for two hours.
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Adding more garage rock to Jolly’s pop gems, Little Pieces are Elvis Costello power-pop with a heavy dose of feedback and lyrics and the kind of nerdish neuroses found in early Fountains of Wayne and Lemonheads. The fact that all of these bands are pretty old-school by now didn’t seem to bother Jolly and his trio of genuinely happy guys. They pounded out pop tunes from the group’s eponymous debut album, including the brilliant “Wrote a Letter” and “Featherweight.”
“It may be too hot in here, but we’re really glad for this to be our first time in Phoenix,” said Jolly as the band finished their set.
Personal Bias: The Modified really, really needs to get some A/C. Or if they already have it, they need to get it fixed.
Crowd Detail: A group of 40-something women suddenly appeared during the Little Pieces set and then proceed to fawn over the singer when he left the stage.