Sit, Listen: Rhye at Fox Theater

imagesBy(Maia)

rhye illustration

The weirdest thing happened a few Sundays ago: there were chairs in Oakland’s Fox Theater. I don’t mean those plastic folding picnic chairs that sometimes make their way to the corners of small underground venues; I’m talking about rows and rows of swanky, orderly wall-to-wall pleather chairs that reached from the edge of the stage to the back bar. Our event tickets were specifically numbered—“Yes, ma’am,” the usher lady told me, “you’ve got seats T3 and T4, please head right this way and stay seated at your ticketed spot for the duration of the show; thank you, thank you.”

As an avid concertgoer, I can attest to the fact that this set up was a bit of an anomaly. The opulent gold decor around the venue—giant jewel-studded statues and intricate indoor trellises—was subtly lit by dim blue stage lights, its initial, over-the-top gaudiness giving way to a stunning, subdued theatrical space. That’s the best way to describe the setting of the night: theatrical, subtle, classy. I’ve never attended a show quite like this—a show where I went the entire night without anyone carelessly spilling overpriced bar beer on my dress; where, at the relatively short height of 5’2”, I was able to see the stage without difficulty for the duration of the performance. Being such a unique setting, every element was absolutely essential to the show’s success. The pleather chairs became as integral to the experience as the music.

It took me some mulling over to find the right words to say about the music. As a disclaimer: if you haven’t yet, I encourage you to listen to Rhye. If you already have, you should still listen to them again and again and again, perhaps even as you read this article. There’s just some music cannot be properly put into words without some of the magic getting lost in translation—and after last night, I feel like Rhye very squarely fits into this category.

Rhye was initially a mystery. They released their first two singles completely anonymously, gifted to the Internet with only their name and accompanying album cover, a mysterious close-up grayscale photo of an arched back (a high-contrast, sensual cover reminiscent of famed photographer Edward Weston’s similarly abstract work). They quickly garnered critical attention and acclaim due to their minimal, soulful instrumentalism and slightly chilling, androgynous lead vocals; and then, without notice, their debut album Woman dropped, with ten brand-new tracks that solidified the group as a new artist to watch.

For their first tour, Rhye mostly performed tracks off of Woman. The album has been classified as everything from “alternative r&b” to “indie soul” (whatever that means), but their sound, which effortlessly ranges from sensual to brooding to lighthearted with stunning, emotionally charged precision, fully transcends genre labels or restrictions. This is music that makes you want to slow dance under a disco ball, to wear a cocktail dress or suit and tie just because, to view the world in the black and white of grainy vintage film. The unorthodox seating in the Fox Theater was a nod to the album’s classiness—Woman, and everything that comprises Woman, is gorgeous, sexy, delicate and refined in every way possible. Shoving crowds and chattering audiences would not have fit in well here.

And with the exception of a few over-intoxicated, enamored audience members (at final count, there were about six “I LOVE YOU!”s directed at frontman Michael Milosh), there was very little shoving or chattering. The audience collectively sat in still, expectant, awestruck silence, as if the slightest movement would break the show’s spell. It was only after they played their magnum opus of a single—the transcendental “Open”—that our emotion began to spill over, manifesting itself as whoops and moans and snaps and hums that reverberated pleasantly across the crowd.

They treated us to lyrics and melodies we recognized—and even a few brand-new pieces we didn’t—while taking advantage of the incredible space and minimalist visuals. A dramatic red velvet curtain served as the band’s backdrop. Four big spheres were placed arbitrarily around the stage, dimly lit and gradually color-shifting in tandem. Thick sheets of blue light blanketed the stage, with purple spotlights lazily flicking between the lead vocalist and various instrumentalists.

Six musicians, playing everything from the violin to keys to bass to drums to trombone, occupied the stage. Rhye performed extended versions of the tracks off of Woman, layering and assembling the music in such a way that the set felt like spontaneous, impromptu, unpredictable bursts of emotion: “Last Dance” turned into a ten minute party groove; “The Fall” was a fluttering medley of acoustic and electric keys; “Verse” devolved into a whirlwind of erratic violin; “Major Minor Love” had the kind of rumbling, slow-moving bass that you could feel stirring deep inside your belly; “Woman” spotlighted the haywire trombonist as she built up half a song’s worth of crescendo, underscoring the musical climax of the night.

Watching and hearing these songs and words unravel and come together before me—even if it was on a lit, central stage and even if there were hundreds of other people watching along with me—felt like I was privy to something very intimate. I was being welcomed into these musicians’ inner circle, where they completely stripped down their creative process in order to expose their raw emotion and talent. It was a completely personal and vulnerable performance, devoid of frills in favor of creating a direct connection between the audience and the music. It was so stirring, so gorgeous and so unforgettable because it was so, so genuine.

I said it earlier: listen to Rhye. Listen to them over and over again; listen to them during late night drives and in those last few moments before you fall asleep; listen to the point where you find yourself sighing out the lyrics to yourself and the goosebumps you get when you hear those sweeping strings feel completely natural. Listen to Woman and then, if you get the chance, get yourself to a Rhye show. Sure, maybe such a deliberately designed concert-going experience might be unnerving at first—but by the end of the night, you’ll forget about seats T3 and T4 and cocktail dresses and blue and purple spotlights. All you’ll be thinking about is floating away along with those last fading notes.

 

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