Cramer Stuns + Local Natives Debut Enigmatic New Songs at Grammy Amplifier Showcase
"Hey, is it okay if we play you some new songs?" asked Taylor Rice, his hair much longer and face far more bearded than the last time his band, Local Natives, visited this particular nook of Southern California. The Los Angeles five-piece headlined the Belly Up Tavern on Thursday night (Sept. 17), bringing their tuneful brand of indie rock to the San Diego 'burb of Solana Beach in honor of Hyundai's Grammy Amplifier program, which mentors emerging artists and shines a spotlight on three winners' careers.
That actually made opening act, Cramer (pictured), the guest of honor, and the Maryland-hailing rock 'n' soul singer stunned a packed house. But first, back to those new Natives songs. They played three of them. The first was an eerie, celestial-sounding track called "Sea of Years" that crested in a driving dance beat and Springsteen-y guitars. "Past Lives" came later, pairing arty '80s keyboard effects with uptempo tropi-pop groove. Last but hardly least was "Whatever We Want," wherein the band's trio of singers — Rice, Kelcey Ayer and Ryan Hahn — put their voices together to declare, "We can do whatever we want, we can say whatever we think / And if we don't care, then who cares?" Next to older, more sweetly sentimental fare like "You & I," and "Airplanes," the unreleased stuff sounded urgent and enigmatic in ways that begged more.
The audience was plenty happy, however, to hear other favorites from Local Natives' precious few albums, like "Camera Talk" (which got a little extra reggae bump) and encore cut "Sun Hands" (kicked off by a stomp-along) off 2009's Gorilla Manor, and Hummingbird (2013) highlights "Heavy Feet" and "Ceilings." Their go-to version of Talking Heads' "Warning Sign" felt grittier and more angular than usual, guitar notes slicing at the air while the fellas bent their harmonies into disconcerting figures.
Equally enrapturing was 22-year-old Akeira Cramer, who led her band through their own cover of "Come Together." The Beatles classic was paid faithful tribute with hot guitar, drums and vocals offset by that telltale burbling bass and the addition of airy keys. The song was an inspired choice. Sure, it may have further muddied the genre-blurring sextet's creative waters — where influences as ranging as Chaka Khan, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Miguel and Fall Out Boy swirl liberally — but the move made it plenty clear that Cramer isn't afraid to take risks, and that she can deliver on those as well.
Her band's set was short, but impactful. They opened with "Don't Leave Me Now," a usually minimal, Tracy Chapman-channeling soul song that got pleasantly loud last night. "It's Alright (It'll Only Hurt a Little)" was also given a treatment fit for a tavern — transposing its author's palpable heartache into a melancholic pile-up of rock and blues that seemed to surprise even Cramer herself. "That song was kind of heavy," she said afterward, before unveiling the night's best. "I wrote this one when I was feeling really emotional." We didn't get the song's title, but it offered a window on this rising talent at her best: an incredibly expressive voice spilling out naked angst over clean, barely-there guitar. Just enough instrumentation to keep Cramer from floating away, but not so much as to ground our ears as we lifted off with her.