It’d be fair to say that I was more curious than excited as I prepared to catch my first Poliça show. They’ve consumed a fair amount of hype since Bon Iver declared them his current favorite, but while I’d found their debut perfectly pleasant, it hadn’t struck as deep a chord with me as it seems to have for Mr. Vernon. To me, the record was a collection of interesting ideas, potentially brilliant in theory, but the final product had failed to quite reach its noble goals. This isn’t to detract from the album, it’s quite good, but leaves the impression there is “more” to find in Poliça’s fledgling sound. So, again, I was curious; curious as to how it would all turn out in a live setting and as to just what the Minneapolis band was capable of.
They were playing The Drunken Unicorn, a new venue to me. I’d expected a small setting, and wasn’t surprised as I ducked into a stage that largely served the bar attached to it, rather than the other way around. As far as a hole in the wall, it had charm, dimly lit and simple, with nothing to distract from the music.
First up was a presumably local DJ, who busied himself with hipster standards, distorted vocals over relatively lush soundscapes, but it was nothing I hadn’t heard from dozens of similar artists. The stage was small, hardly above the dance floor, offering the sense of unity between artist and audience that sets tiny venues apart from their bigger cousins. At this point, the floor was nearly empty, with a few scene kids awkwardly attempting to interact as the DJ wailed about. “I really hope Poliça gets a better turnout than this,” I thought to myself; the show had been scheduled to start at 8:30, as the hour neared eleven, numbers were still grim, even for a venue so small.
Next up were Sleepy Genes, who took what may have been the longest soundcheck I’ve seen for such a small show, testing each aspect of their approaching performance with over-zealous concern. Amusingly, after all that, the vocals were drowned out completely by the secondary guitar, leading to an unending game of adjustments. Nonetheless, their bombastic performance began to fill out the audience somewhat. In between songs, the singer declared, “Man, so Poliça is playing tonight.” Then joked, “Man, is that how you say it? They’ve got the thing on the ‘c’, is it ‘The Police Band’?” (In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced ‘Police-a’) As for Sleepy Genes, their music drifted somewhere between good times rock n’ roll and Nirvana, with the frontman taking perhaps a few too many notes from Kurt and Dave Grohl’s playbook. Still, they provided a fun enough introduction, and were clearly a young band, doubtlessly with growing to do. After about a half-hour set, Cobain 2.0 was finished yelling and cavorting about stage, and it was time for the main event.
Following a considerably swifter soundcheck, Poliça was on stage and ready to go. My knowledge of the band was, in fact, relatively limited, and I was unsure how their setup worked live. Poliça consists of two drummers, a bass player, and the charismatic vocals of Channy Moon Casselle. It was no surprise that a live setting benefited the drumming: on the record, they often are relegated to the backseat in the face of technical wizardry and Casselle’s distorted singing. Live, they’re front and center, their dual nature granting them power and force. Songs that in their polished studio form seemed to conceal raw potential were suddenly fully, viscerally realized.
The eerie glide of “Happy Be Fine” was still intact, only more viciously omnipresent with its backing instruments allowed to match the vocals. “Lay Your Cards Out,” in particular, benefited. The studio version features a rising drum beat in its breakdowns, unfairly dulled and concealed by reducing its tone in favor of a smoother sound. With the band rocking out in person, the track took on a practically massive new life, transforming what was a enjoyable groove into stomp-worthy dance track. In fact, this was the overall result of the live translation: the album is groovy, the performance was grander, harsher, generally closer to a fully realized band.
It really was quite an impressive show, turning me, for one, from a curious spectator, into a true fan, not to mention packing the tiny, formerly nearly empty, venue to capacity. Even as they had taken the stage, the audience had still seemed small, it was as if the quality of the performance had somehow created a hipster brainwave, because it seemed that all of Atlanta’s most-plaid had magically turned out in force. Beyond all this, and most importantly, Poliça had offered a greater insight into who they were, what they wanted to create. Where I had once found their debut pleasant but distant, it now just clicks, the power of their performance granting me a better understanding of just what I’m listening to. Whereas the album may seem to present a somewhat stuffy, indie-tastic affair, Poliça had proven themselves to be, simply, fun people looking to provide a good time. “Are you all having fun? I know I am,” Casselle asked between songs. A standard question to be sure, but as she danced about, never failing to grin widely in appreciation when the crowd really moved, the singer clearly meant it. I’ve always said there’s little I love more than an artist who clearly just enjoys every aspect of what they do, and stuck in a sweaty little venue, far from home, Poliça proved just that feeling to me. After the audience beckoned the band happily played a two song encore, pausing for thanks, and to address a man in the audience who had once worked with one of the drummers, returning me to that lovely feeling of a band in the truly early moments of their rise. They also revealed they’re in the process of recording new songs, songs they felt more proud of than they’d yet released. “You guys are blowin’ up!,” a man shouted, and Casselle nearly seemed to blush, graciously and unsurely replying, “Why thank you.” As I began to file out, I thought to myself: if Poliça manage to filter more of this live energy into a studio setting, we may well have a very big, very good, band on our hands. Either way, as of now, they make for one great, energetic, danceable live act. Catch them if you can.