The Masquerade is always an interesting place to see a show. Not necessarily in a good way. Being divided into three venues (Heaven, Hell, Purgatory), there are often conflicting events pulling disparate crowds into the same building. It can be a little awkward. But Friday night was a special one, indeed. Right across the hall from Purgatory, where Mikky Ekko and Haerts were billed to perform, Hell was playing host to a Wizard Ball. I’ll leave the imagery up to your imagination, but suffice it to say upon entering I was wondering if I was the only person not in costume.
Purgatory is the smallest of the three venues, and the room was less than half full before Mikky Ekko (born John Stephen Sudduth) took the stage. I will admit that I came into the show largely unfamiliar with Mikky Ekko’s catalogue, aside from “Stay,” the 2012 Grammy-nominated duet he recorded with Rihanna. Sudduth grabbed mine and the rest of the crowd’s attention pretty quickly, though. By the second song, I was sold. The guitarist definitely stole the show in these early numbers, but it disproved my earlier notion that Mikky Ekko’s music was slow and sleepy.
Moving into the super soulful “Mourning Doves,” Sudduth opened up and unleashed his voice in a huge way. Now I see why he’s fronting this band without playing an instrument; his is built in. For “Time,” the title track off his forthcoming LP, the drummer and synth player left the stage, allowing Sudduth’s voice to take an even more leading role.
“Pull Me Down” is Mikky Ekko’s oldest song, created with Clams Casino at the production helm, and it was a crowd pleaser for sure. The next stretch of songs really saw the band coming together as a whole, creating a huge, cohesive sound that filled the room with energy and emotion. “Pressure Pills” offered hints of hip hop in the beats and “Pretend You Care” carried this feeling as well with deep bass notes and a really interesting drum machine sound. The guitar-driven R&B Mikky Ekko offers is definitely at it’s best when the full potential of all of his band is used, and these three songs were by far the best of the night for me.
Before closing out with an epic performance of “Smile,” Sudduth explains that because Atlanta feels like home (he went to college in Macon), he’s going to play a song he didn’t think he would play again, the aforementioned Rihanna duet “Stay.” No, Rihanna didn’t make an appearance.
A night of incredible singers indeed, Nini Fabi of Haerts wasted no time warming up her vocal chords on “Be the One” and stand-out single “Hemiplegia,” the opening two songs of their set. Side note: hemiplegia is condition that Fabi has struggled with since childhood which causes half of her body to lose feeling and renders her unable to speak. She explains that the song is not about the condition itself, ”It’s a metaphor – you see exactly what you want to do but you can’t. Who hasn’t felt that way?”
Fabi creates her own little rhythm section on the next couple of songs, employing a circular string of bells on “Lights Out” and a tambourine on “No One Needs To Know”. In the early moments of “Call My Name,” she looks over her left and right shoulders, making eye contact with her band, and you can feel the connectivity between them as a group. This is something the band has been pretty open about; their closeness as a creative force is no secret. In fact, Nini and multinstrumentalist Ben Gebert have been making music together since their early teens.
There’s an over exuberant fan in the front row belting out the words to “Call My Name” as loud as she can scream and rather than seeming annoyed, Fabi actually embraces the excitement, and it seems as though she’s almost performing for her specifically. She even calls her out between songs “That’s really great up front; let’s see if you know this one.”
It was “All the Days” …and she knew it. The most interesting part of this song for me was the closing section in which Fabi used her double mic setup to echo herself with complimenting vocal effects. Pretty cool to be able to recreate layered vocal tracks in a live setting.
“The Creek” was a new song, and one that sounded completely different than what we’ve grown to know from the band. Unlike the anthemic build ups of many Haerts songs, this one was very up-and-down with very distinct changes in pace ranging from the hushed opening to something more reminiscent of guitar rock than Haerts’ brand of sweet indie pop. The crowd absolutely loved it.
But not as much as they loved the next song, “Wings,” the first single the band ever released and I assume the inspiration for the tattoo inside Nini’s left wrist. She has a genuine smile on her face as she dedicates this one to the crowd before soaring into a beautiful performance of the epic single.
There’s a pause after this song in which she tells a short story about recording their song “Hope” in a 2-minute record booth at Third Man Records in Nashville. She had teased earlier in the show about having a contest coming up in which they would give away “a lot of money” to which I quietly responded “or a piece of vinyl you just recoded in Nashville?”. Being the responsible journalist that I am (cough, cough), I had seen mention of this on their Facebook when doing a bit of research the day before the show. I guess that was my winning ticket to the contest, because she handed me the one-of-a-kind 6” record and proceeded to perform the song, followed by the closer “Giving Up.”
It sounds way too trite to even write this, but it’s my honest perception that there really is so much heart in this band. From the way they describe their own story (at length) in their bio to their creative connectivity and passionate musicianship to their inspired songwriting, Haerts take their craft seriously and the emotion comes through ever so clearly. Their performance was epic, beautiful, enchanting, spirited, and inspiring, and it let me forget – for about 45 minutes – that there was a mini Dragon Con happening in the next room.
Michelle King is the executive manager and director of publicity at Noisy Ghost PR, based out of the Graveface Records headquarters in Savannah, GA. You can also find her blogging at She Turns the Tables, contributing music content at Posture Magazine, and obsessively streaming music on Spotify.