FEST 17’s Most Memorable Moments: Just Friends at The Wooly
Posted: by The Editor
As we predicted, Just Friends‘ FEST set at The Wooly on Saturday 10/27 was one of, if not the most, exciting and chaotic sets of the entire weekend. Whether the festival organizers planned it or not, the set being scheduled at the peak of everyone’s energy levels (in the early evening, before people had a chance to get tired), and right as the venue was reaching capacity in anticipation for the night ahead (Prince Daddy & the Hyena, Kississippi, and Mom Jeans. would follow), created a perfect storm of enthusiasm.
Just Friends are a 10-piece unit on this tour: three guitarists, two trombonists, one trumpeter, one bassist, one drummer, and two vocalists. So just by sheer numbers, their stage presence dwarves every other band they play with. In any venue at or below 300-cap, they look silly and constricted stuffed onto the stage. But The Wooly’s platform was wide enough to fit all of them with room to spare, and the ceiling was high enough so that there wasn’t a bad vantage point to be found. This might seem like a small detail, but frontman Sam Kless and his bandmates were so magnetic, confident, and comfortable up there that an even bigger stage seemed imminent. They have the volume (sonically and physically speaking) to fill an arena. Few, if any, of their punk contemporaries feel poised for such a drastic leap down the line.
But more than just the decibel dominance of nearly a dozen loud-ass instruments, Just Friends’ music is party music. It’s live music. It’s music made specifically for jumping, yelling, swaying, head-banging, and stage-diving. But it’s also music made for smiling. These aren’t cornerstone traits of emo music, which is what Just Friends were, more than anything, on their unpolished 2015 debut Rock 2 The Rhythm. Sure, some of the tracks had ska horns, and Kless’ silly ad-libs had hip-hop swagger. But the verses and choruses were a pretty obvious blend of beefier Midwestern emo, Free Throw or Spraynard-esque pop-punky emo, and the associated lyrical melodramas. The type of music Mom Jeans. have found success in between the rugged edges of Warped Tour pop-punk and the smoothest edges of the emo revival bubble.
Nothing But Love is a jarringly different beast. Kless swapped many of his nasally lamentations for boisterous raps about self-empowerment, dancefloor romance, and showing up haters. Songs like “Keep Up,” “Supersonic,” and the venerable title track have more in common with Funkadelic, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rage Against the Machine than anything even tangentially emo. Aside from the hopeless, post-tears rage ballad “Sick of It All” (which is admittedly catchy as fuck), and Rock 2’s mammoth standout “Welcome Mats,” the punk-funk bangers are the ones they played at FEST—and rightly so.
Kless, clad in running shorts and a fanny pack strapped across his chest, strutted out to the grimacing intro riff of “Get Down” and quickly tumbled into an absurd cartwheel before shouting out his friends and family (the Counter Intuitive posse stationed side-stage). Then the set kicked off and the most pleasant form of pandemonium ensued. They ripped through the bombastic first half of Nothing But Love with formidable tenacity; horns blaring, guitars shredding, and Kless and co-vocalist Brianda Goyos León absolutely wailing into their mics. The entire crowd was an amorphous blob of bouncing heads, a discordant melange of rave floor boogying and mosh pit tumbling. Most frontpersons would be fueled by that sort of response, but Kless came out with an already full tank of gas, and performed like he was never satisfied with the howling scrum before him.
He egged people to jump harder and faster. He twirled, swung, kicked, and hurled himself across the stage like the most vibrant of hardcore vocalists. And he burst into erratic monologues about defending his friends, dedicating songs to “anyone who ever doubted me,” and then sometimes just bellowing out Brockhampton and Rage Against the Machine (who they covered, effortlessly, the night before) lines at the end of songs. He would often forego chunks of his own verses and just toss the mic to a buddy from side-stage, dipping and ducking between his bandmates and pounding on an auxiliary tom set. At one point he even leapt into the crowd with the drum, set up in the middle of the pit, and engaged in a call-and-response drum-off with his bandmate on the kit.
The next day, a colleague and I were reminiscing about the set, and he offhandedly said, “Sam can’t even sing. At all.” By traditional standards, no, he can’t. His voice is gravelly and pitchy and he has almost no range—especially compared to León, a straight-up belter. The rap flow he’s taken on in the new material suits him much better than attempting to hit high notes he simply can’t, but either way it doesn’t even matter. The dude is incomparably charismatic in the live setting, and his role becomes this dazzling hybrid of hype-man and frontman. None of the emo contemporaries they continue to tour with are anything like Just Friends at this point, and none of them put on a show that’s even in the same realm as their FEST set.
It’ll be really interesting to see where this band ends up in a year. They could take this thing in a number of weird and wild directions, and it’s exciting to see them beginning to prosper. But no matter where they land, I’ll always feel sorry for any band who has to follow up them on a bill.
Eli Enis |@eli_enis
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