Students shuffled into Cal Poly’s Recreation Center Thursday, only this time, it wasn’t for Zumba class. Chatter buzzed upward. Vodka was hurriedly chugged, texts from moms deflected. There was a certain eagerness in the air, only to build as the students were stripped at the main door of their umbrellas, bedazzled lighters and forgotten grilled cheese sandwiches. Over a few hundred students paused their Settlers of Catan residence hall games to see the alt-rock big hitters X Ambassadors, as well as their lesser known indie pop opener Freedom Fry, in the main gym for Associated Students, Inc.’s first concert of the year.
Nauseating strobe lights zig-zagged across the room, casting fermented shades of orange and acid blue on late-comers and timid couples. People danced their way into the doorways and I felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest, but not in a way that was particularly exciting. Backpacks lined the bleachers like a middle school dance; I was the chaperone.
The Los Angeles indie pop band Freedom Fry probably would have won every Battle of the Bands at your high school. The songs lacked continuity, or what seemed like any true, active intention at all. They were a little folky, a little country, a little alternative, a little bit Mumford & Sons and even a little bit of Gregorian chant — but didn’t ring eclectic as much as a half-baked hodgepodge of something trying to separate itself from Milky Chance but falling short.
Parts of their set, though, had their own flighty kind of effervescence; for a few seconds at a time, Parisian-born lead singer Marie Seyrat’s wafty vocals reminded me a little bit of a fellow Parisian, Beach House’s vocalist Victoria Legrand. But what almost felt authentic slowly found itself closing in. Then, in some vain effort to achieve a climax, the sound clamped back out, premature and hollow — back to songs you sing half-heartedly at a karaoke night with your friends.
Listening to X Ambassadors, the radio superstars from Ithaca, New York, who took the stage for the remaining near two hours of the concert, I noticed a similar pattern. All in black, and most likely planned that way, their performance harked back to the foundation of pop — a sort of baseless urge to evoke: a premeditated package of a concert manufactured to ensure fawning girls, boisterous applause and seaweed-like arms uniformly moving to the beat.
But the most interesting part of X Ambassadors, and perhaps the reason for my own semi paradigm-shift, was Casey Harris, the keyboardist and brother of lead singer, Sam Harris. Unbeknownst to me at first, Casey is blind; he was born with Senior-Løken syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects both his kidneys and his vision, so he’s unable to read anything on paper. Yet, I felt the kernel of the band not only through his fantastic piano playing, but also through his movement.
While the other members of the band either didn’t engage or somehow overcompensated through dangerous hops onto pricey speaker systems, Casey was what carried the show. He was fervent in every way he moved. He whirled, swayed and bounced with conviction — he leaned his entire body toward whatever instrument was dominating. He didn’t impose and was content to be separated in his own corner of the world. This was a stark difference from the chiseled voice of Sam Harris, the processed drum lines and the vacant movements of the rest of the bandmates who looked like Teletubbies if they could vape.
The heart began to take shape underneath their glassy armor and the glitz and glam of the deep V-neck — the pseudo art of performance. And just like that, X Ambassadors came to life.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the band Freedom Fry as Freedom Fly.