The scent of Halloween fills my nostrils. That same thick, white smoke used for haunted houses pours over the stage and wafts over the heads of concert goers in the mysterious, hazy space that is the 9:30 club. Spectators line the balcony, circling the venue, while a mass of people mill around the stage, waiting in anticipation for the show to start. Suddenly, the 6’4” Australian steps onto the stage in a cloud of hellish red smoke, his mass of curls illuminated in the halo of heavenly white lights from above.
Strumming his guitar, brow furrowed, Vance Joy sings, “If you’re losing sleep, scared of shadows.” With his eyes closed, he rocks forward, the whiplash of his bouncing hair adding an extra layer of dynamism to each new line. Occasionally, his long-haired crony croons supporting vocals in the background, and his drummer smiles like an excited kid in a toy store as he gets into the beat. This show opener, “Emmylou,” serves as a laid-back transition into the night, and sets the precedent for the raw and authentic performance that lays bare Vance Joy’s insecurities and fears about love.
When I told people I was going to see Vance Joy, the first question was always: “Who?” Just a few months ago he could have been called a “one-hit wonder,” but with the release of his debut album Dream Your Life Away, Vance Joy is well on his way to becoming a prominent artist. It is indicative that he ended his performance, not with the popular “Riptide,” but with his up-and-coming song “Mess is Mine,” and people actually knew the lyrics and sang along.
The physicality of Vance Joy and his presence were big draws for many of the fans at the venue, no doubt about it. One woman standing next to me could scarcely contain herself; she turned to me suddenly and whispered fiercely, “he’s so cute!” The general consensus is that his eye crinkles and charm greatly add to his appeal as an artist.
However, his natural appeal does not mean that he is the most rehearsed of performers. As an emerging artist, Vance Joy still has traces of performance awkwardness that make him all the more endearing and genuine. In the middle of the performance, he stopped to tell a story about a Simpsons episode in which kids at an elementary school are killed and put into the school lunches. The story was almost an accident; halfway through he paused to remark, “I can’t believe I got myself into this,” but having gotten too far in to quit, he delivered the unsuccessful punchline: “It’s almost as though [the kid] is inside each of us.” His bandmates chuckled in the background as the audience gave a very belated reaction, and Vance laughed off the weirdness goodnaturedly. The opportunity for such a moment to occur is part and parcel of the appeal of smaller venues like the 9:30 club; the authenticity of the artist is not lost. He even explained the power dynamics of the band’s dress code: when three of the members accidentally wore denim shirts, they forced the fourth one to change, because four is better than three. Power dynamics notwithstanding, it was clear that each member of the band was thrilled to be playing there that night; all three of them smiled incessantly the whole time that Vance sang.
“When you think of love, do you think of pain?” In his parting song, Vance Joy held to the authenticity of his performance and the intimate, relaxed vibes of the whole night, successfully proving at once that he is both more than a passing fad and that he can keep his performance raw and unique. This rising star is going to rise a lot higher.
Photo: Pam Shu/The Georgetown Voice