Helsinki Rocks Middle East

Fans dizzily dance in the misty fog at Architecture in Helsinki show

The uniforms of the attendees wore a light dusting of perspiration by the time the lights dimmed. T-shirts, some silkscreened at home, grew dark under arms and in Roschach-looking blots at the smalls of their backs. Pants slung low by hands buried in pockets gripped waists, made tight by hands turned to fists with anticipation. Shoes (All-Stars, slip-ons, ankle boots, and Asics), well scuffed by summer shows, fidgeted.

It was Tuesday night. The bartender downstairs at the Middle East winced under the weight of a crate of Pabst. She passed cans back through the crowdlike buckets in a fire brigade. Tabs opening and sips slurping, the sound of thirst-quenching and drink-drinking drowned out the pre-show murmuring. At the front of the hall, the last pieces of percussion clattered as the sole stagehand strung a rope between two beams. A pot, a cookie tin, a goblet, and a candlestick dangled, ready for fun.

Then, one-by-one, the members of Architecture in Helsinki tromped into the open. In the crowd, whispers rose to roars and cheers into screams. While the guitars were slung over the musicians’ shoulders and the heels of the hipsters rose up to see the prize, “Neverevereverdid” clanged to life.

“I love Australians,” Avis, my concert-mate and a devoted fan, said as she smiled. In front of her, the chorus three women, one man, all standing in black with their fingers clasped, bouncing to the beat behind their backs sang with their chins up and their lips curled. “Look how happy they are!”

Energy fed dance—by the third song even the navel-gazers tapped their toes. The better three of them in front of me traded elbow nudges and head nods. One wore white, the other black, and the third stepped back as if to judge. A duel ensued.

The soldier in black stood a few inches taller. She churned her arms, dropped her head and shook it side-to-side when the notes from “It’s 5!” charged off the stage, horns ablaze. Her hands shot upward with the high notes. Her hips hesitated (all style) on the offbeat. Her eyes opened only at the end of the song to catch her opponent’s, stinging like a glove against his cheek.

He (in white, shoulders shrugged and feet kicking) responded with appropriate late-’90s finesse to the ska-laced beat of “Frenchy, I’m Faking.” With big band grandeur, two trombones from the band crossed slides, hurling more syncopated grace at the dancer. With sudden fear, his feet were not his own but those of another, less laden with curiosity and daring. A missed beat turned into a shuffle, a pause, and then a failed pitch at recovery.

No one could fault the loser. A dance duel created through Architecture in Helsinki smacks of peril. An eight-mate, endlessly-outfitted ensemble that defies genre, the group left no instruments unplayed. What began the night as a guitar, a bass, some drums, some voices, and a piano evolved at odd points to include a triangle, a Casio keyboard, a trumpet, a flute (total Jethro-style), a cowbell, a casaba, the string of things, a Powerbook, a breath-activated toy keyboard, many hands clapping, and all the crowd laughing.

As the evening turned to night, the songs sped, the energy surged. Eyebrows raised up higher on sweat-soaked foreheads when the band began to switch instruments during the second hour of the show.

The music started to spiral in the last few songs. The vortex left the dancers so dizzy they could only jump. And just when it felt never-ending, the band rushed off stage, begging an encore and teasing the masses. Not a minute later, to the thundering of a thousand palms, they rushed back on with Dr. Dog (the opening artist, who looked like Kid Rock as a Parliament backup dancer) in tow.

With the instruments finally almost outnumbered, together, the musicians launched into “Do the Whirlwind.” Rising a meter from the ground, The shoes (now warm and soft and a little more worn from the dance) wiggled free from the limits of the floor. The pants, set free from fist-clenched pocket occupants, hung looser. The shirts, soaked through, fluttered in the breeze of the subwoofers. Uniforms weathered by battle.

THE BAND QUERIED

“Why are you guys so fun?”

“We’re from Australia,” answered the lead singer between sips of aftershow water.

“And that defines you?”

“In many ways, yes. It’s tough, though, when you use all these elements of spontaneity. But, you know, Australia doesn’t really have a national identity. It’s too young, too isolated from the rest of the world.”

“So then where did all these people, your fans, come from?”

“The internet. Australia might be disconnected but we aren’t. Most of our fan base lives online.”

“I heard about you guys online.”

“And that’s why it’s such a hopeful and great time for music,” he took another sip.

“You know the word ‘hip’ comes from a West African verb. Hepi. It means ‘to see’ or ‘to open one’s eyes.’”

“I love West African music it’s my favorite.”

“A big influence then?”

“Of course. All the instruments we play and the energy. It comes right out of Ghana, where kids just pick up and play whatever they can find. Like that rope with all the things on it. We picked that stuff up on the way over here.” He paused. Then grinned.

“Well the rhythm worked.”

“Yeah. I wish I had the rhythm of some black musicians. All my heroes are black musicians.”

—Staff writer Adam C. Estes can be reached at estes@fas.harvard.edu.