I first heard Bent Knee around this time last year. They had been nominated for a Progressive Music Award, and I wanted familiarize myself with the artists who had been selected. I started poking around on Youtube, and I clicked on the track “Being Human”. It was love at first listen. They were progressive in the truest sense- a brilliant mixture of various genres, rather than a rehashing of what I had heard in the progressive (yet often paradoxically stagnant) music genre. I began to dig into their discography, and I realized that they just released an album, 2016’s Say So. That album quickly became one of my favorite albums of the year (click here for my review), and was universally loved by all of our Proglodytes bloggers.
Fast forward a year later. I see that they are touring in Indianapolis to promote their latest album, Land Animal, and it’s within driving distance, so of course I have to go. Even better- they are the only ones playing, so I get to see over an hour of pure, unadulterated Bent Knee (that just sounds nasty, sorry). I made the drive up to Indianapolis, to a small but charming venue called Radio Radio. As soon as I walk to the venue, I see Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth (Bent Knee’s drummer) sitting on a couch in the front. I was able to give them the shirt that I bought him for his shirt contest (see his Facebook post if you’re curious). He seemed very appreciative that we played along. It wasn’t soon after that the band took the stage.
They opened with the second song from their new album land animal called “Hole”. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album. A brief aside: It’s always interesting to hear how a really well produced band translates into a live setting. In the case of Bent Knee, I was impressed at the way they sounded over the mix (which you could probably attribute to the venue and the sound person), and was also impressed with the on stage production, which is thanks to Vince Welch and his engineering skills. In my interview with Bent Knee last year, Ben, Jessica, and Gavin had said that Vince plays a crucial role in creating the Bent Knee sound and seeing them live was a great testament to that. They even said that they play their music for him, and he “Bent Knee-ifies it” in the production stage (for the record, “bentkneeify” has got to be one of the best verbs ever). During the concert, Vince was constantly turning knobs and switching things on and off. Whether it was additional synth sounds, or samples, or reverb on Courtney’s voice, it did a lot for the experience.
They played a number of songs from their new album Land Animal, which we liked very much here at the blog. I had listened to it several times from start to finish, and I had a certain set of songs that I liked a whole lot. But, as is generally the case, hearing the other songs in a live setting “sold” me to their brilliance. I was able to hear sonically how certain songs balanced out other songs. “Belly Side Up” was one such song, as was “Time Deer”. I liked both of them before, but seeing them live illuminated them for me, and I’ve gone back to the record to listen to them several times since the concert. This, to me, is one of my favorite things about seeing a band live.
I honestly couldn’t pick a VIP for the night. Courtney Swain’s voice was incredible and her performance was everything you would hope to expect from her, and the small group I had brought all agreed. She was consistently dynamic and powerful throughout the set, but she soared on the songs “Holy Ghost”, “Being Human” and “Terror Bird”. I loved watching Ben Levin and Jessica Kion play their furiously syncopated parts with glee. Jessica’s backup vocals were perfectly blended and her bass work was solid and focused, and Ben ripped on the guitar, even treating us to several guitar solos throughout the that weren’t on the albums. Ben’s glee for the music was infectious. Chris Baum’s violin playing is a really unique feature of Bent Knee’s sound. Many times bands will use stringed instruments as an appendage, but his violin playing is as integral to the Bent Knee sound as any other instrument, whether it was quirky pizzicato or intense washes of strings. And finally, as a drummer, how can I not be totally and completely enamored with Gavin Wallace Ailsworth’s playing? Gavin seems to always be playing in complex burst and quirky rhythms, and yet he somehow makes it seem effortless (though as a drummer, I know better).
And even after writing that paragraph, I think that the magic of Bent Knee is that they somehow write melodic, interesting music that just happens to be technically complex.
The set list was diverse and full of dynamic contrast like their albums. They had moments of tender piano and they had heavy atmospheric moments as well. Part of being a music fan and seeing live shows is taking into account your expectations for a live sound. Many progressive rock bands have really dense albums that sound great in the studio but don’t necessarily translate as well life. Bent Knee met and even exceeded my expectations live, in large part due to their high level of technical skill, but also due to Vince’s careful manipulations of sounds and voices and instruments.
Also, Bent Knee seemed to enjoy the music that they were playing. I know that it’s sometimes can feel like a job for a musician, because I’ve played back to back shows before, and I know for a fact that sometimes it’s difficult to play the same songs every night and feel excited about them. But seeing this band play with such energy and engage with the audience was really special to me. There are few things more deflating as a music fan than to realize and artists doesn’t care that much about the music that they write. It kind of makes you feel dumb for liking it so much. But near the end of the show, Courtney talked a little bit about how she was humbled by the fans that were in attendance. She was said she was blown away that people started to come to their shows and sing along to their songs. She thanked the people in the audience for making tonight special in that way. For me, it reminded me of how music, once it leaves the artists’ hands, begins to take other forms in the hands and hearts of the listener, and because of that, it becomes something very personal and special. Before and after the show, the band was very approachable and kind, and I think that their astonishment to the crowd size and interaction might speak to the fact that they need to be reminded of their quality level as a band (though not too much, as Ben said in his interview- it’s good to be humble).
Which brings with me to my final point. What does it feel like to see a world-class band of Berkeley graduates, who have received glowing reviews from not just your standard music sites like Consequence of Sound, but also major news outlets like the Boston Globe and the The Wall Street Journal, in a humble venue in Indiana with a small (but enthusiastic) crowd? On one hand, it feels unjust. A band of that caliber should at least be able to pack a bar, if not play to a midsize venue. I’ve played Bent Knee for several people, and I’ve never gotten a bad review- as a matter of fact, several audience members were people who I had introduced to the band. The audience was really impressed, and accidental eavesdropping on a few conversations after the show clued me into a general consensus that it had been an amazing night of music. So on the other hand, getting to see them in that intimate setting allowed me to feel like I was part of something magical and special. For Bent Knee, I think it’s going to be a matter of time. The quality of their music speaks for itself, and I think that people are starting to notice.
To close: If Bent Knee are playing within driving distance, check them out, regardless of whether or not you are familiar with their catalog. You won’t be sorry.
- Time Deer
- Holy Ghost
- Being Human
- Insides In
- These Hands
- Land Animal
- Leak Water
- Belly Side Up
- The Well
- Terror Bird
- Battle Creek