Somewhere in between the first and second time the band Karen Meat deployed its smoke machine — after singer Arin Eaton had regaled the audience from the stage sitting atop her guitarist and bandmate Dana Telsrow — it may have occurred to some in the small crowd gathered at Cafe Nine on Thursday just what kind of night it had been, and emotionally, how far the music had travelled.
The night began with a luminous set from Shy, a.k.a. Shyanne Horner, who played previous shows as a solo act since appearing on the New Haven scene several months ago. Tonight she brought a full trio — Mike Kusek on bass and Quinn Turlington on drums — that proved a great fit. Kusek and Turlington brought out the shifting rhythms and textures in Horner’s music, from tango to an almost country swing to expansive rock ‘n’ roll, often all in the same song. Turlington was inventive on the drums, finding a lot of sounds in the skins, never quite settling for a simple pattern but never overplaying either.
But the music was held together by Horner herself. Her guitar created the atmosphere for the songs to breathe in, whether she was picking out a filagreed texture or letting loose with rich distortion. Her voice conveyed an emotional message, moody but not depressive, contemplative but still moving with energy. All together, Shy was anything but. Horner, Kusek, and Turlington created an almost cinematic musical landscape to roam across.
Yet Horner flashed smiles often while playing, to her bandmates, to the audience, sometimes to her instrument. In between the deep emotional dives of the songs, she was self-deprecating and upbeat. “I had a chunk of hair in my mouth for half of that,” she joked after one number. “It was all right, though.” Judging from the response of the crowd, it was more than that.
Karen Meat took the stage armed with guitar and effects pedals, a microphone, a phone with MP3s on it, matching colorful smocks and a gallon of delightfully genuine weirdness. Using backing tracks from the phone plugged into the house PA, and without other band members or equipment in the way, the duo used all of Cafe Nine’s stage as it rarely gets a chance to be used. Eaton sang sitting on the floor as often as she didn’t. Sometimes Telsrow prowled the area. Sometimes the two of them performed to each other, coming in close enough to share the microphone.
About halfway through their set, the duo kicked it up a notch.
“Do you want to take a break?” Eaton said.
“You’re the boss,” Telsrow said.
“Let’s take a break,” Eaton said.
Telsrow and put his guitar down. He got on his hands and knees on the stage and curled into a ball. Eaton climbed on top of him and sang sitting on his back like he was a boulder. Somehow Telsrow still managed to extend an arm to reach his beer and take a couple refreshing sips.
Later songs found Telsrow lying on the floor with his legs in the air while playing guitar, Eaton’s feet on either side of Telsrow’s head while Eaton leaned on Telsrow’s feet. The duo serenaded the Cafe Nine audience with a fragment of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with Eaton sitting on Telsrow’s shoulders. After that, Telsrow lay on the stage. Eaton crouched over him, having taken a mouthful of beer. Telsrow opened his mouth, and Eaton let a thin stream of beer fall from her mouth into his. They didn’t waste a drop. And that all was before they set off the smoke machine twice. They did all this without breaking deadpan character or, for that matter, much of a sweat. It was all really, really entertaining.
And underlying the theatrics was a set of bouncy, quirky, very catchy synth-pop songs, half-driven by Telsrow’s on-point guitar playing and Eaton’s nonchalant vocals. It was 80s music all grown up, far too self-aware to take itself seriously, maybe having been through some serious stuff — it’s 2018, after all — but still there to have a seriously good time.
“The one that everyone likes and we don’t like it — can we do that one?” Eaton said maybe two-thirds of the way through the set. Telsrow seemed to think about it for a second, then clicked on a pedal at his feet.
“Yeah,” he said. Sure enough, everyone liked it.