Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Flemington Meets KC: Nalani & Sarina Prove It All Night in 45

On the EP and album (2015's Scattered World and 2018's The Circle) I’ve been listening to over the past two years, New Jersey twin rockers Nalani & Sarina have come to represent what I find missing in most contemporary music—a big vision and a firm belief in that vision. When I heard they were opening for Tech N9ne January 26th, I had to be there though three other favorite bands were playing shows the same night. I took my older brother (my first music teacher) and my nephew (the musician in the family) to their set opening for Tech N9ne, the biggest act in town playing a sold out show at the 2000-person room Voodoo Lounge.

Now Tech N9ne fans, and fans of his label Strange Music, are a wonderfully frenzied, devoted bunch. I can’t think of another Kansas City artist who has anything like his following. I was a little nervous for these Jersey artists I cared so much about because I would not personally want to be taking the stage before Tech and his two Strange-label openers. At the same time, it was a moment of great possibility. I plunged to the middle of the floor hoping, almost against hope, that this crowd would have open ears for the rock show that was going to happen before the Strange Music review.

They had only 45 minutes to make an impression, to gain some new fans.

Some musicians seize possibilities in a way that makes it look thrillingly effortless. Nalani & Sarina are just such artists. These two women hit the stage with guitars—mirror twins, guitar necks pointing in opposite directions—another guitarist to their right, a bassist to their left, drums in the back. They said, “Hello, Kansas City, are you ready to see Tech N9ne?” The crowd roared. “We’re here to warm you up!”

And then—I wish I knew how to say this with the appropriate weight—they tore into it all, their whole set, the whole room. They shouted in unison this clarion call—“Wa, wa, wa, wake up now! Wa, wa, wa, wake!”—and they were laying out the house with this slamming pledge to “stay here forever” and promising “the break of day.” More than a few hands in the house immediately went up.  

On the second song, "The Circle," Sarina took to the keys for a stinging funk riff, and Nalani answered with chunky rhythm guitar, their twin vocals full-throated and pledging that we could become a part of a revolutionary circle of change alongside them. Bold stuff for an audience that's never seen or heard the band before, but inviting, the message of freedom so universal and the energy infectious.

(This video from a smaller show in Chicago gives a hint of what it was like--

Nalani & Sarina have some wonderful ballads and songs that defy genre description, but they stuck to one hard rocking moment after another. “Wanna Be with You” featured an impossibly fast and facile bass run by Mike Klemash, feeling as much like a pledge to the audience as a love song (which of course it is).  

Things slowed a bit for the reggae-flavored “Deep End,” featuring a primal lead by Ryan Swing. This momentary change of pace allowed a glimpse of the depth of soul that typifies these women. Catchy as hell, you couldn’t miss the poignant hello-goodbye fragility of the desperate relationship at the heart of the song.

 At that point, they traded hard hitting raps and blended those twin vocals for the verses of their flipped bird to the music industry, “Get Away.” The steady beats provided by drummer Sunny Dee held the core of the hip hop/rock mix. The high energy funk of  “Hung Up” raised the room temperature a few more degrees. Though they introduced one of their finest songs, “Pretty Lies” as an experience at a bad frat party, it is tellingly and clearly a song that describes the state of today’s dominant culture and politics.

That’s when the show really got mind-blowing. Their cover of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” might best be defined as sweat-drenched, on stage and throughout the crowd. Then, they launched into the Stephen Foster classic “Hard Times (Come Again No More)” as an intro to one of their most powerful, inclusive anthems, “We’ll Be Free.”

(Here's a clip of "Hard Times/"We'll Be Free" from Chicago.

The show ended with their bluesy “Break of Dawn” as the framework for a medley of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack,” Taylor Swift’s “Never Getting Back Together,” Aretha Franklin’s “Think,” Prince’s “Kiss” and, well, what everyone has to play when they come to our town, Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City.” Sarina hit just the right note by almost apologizing before she did it by saying, “Since we’ve only been to Kansas City one time!” 

It was terrific.

After some wonderful fighting over the keyboards, both sisters playing over and against each other, Nalani stepped centerstage with guitar and began to testify. She shouted, “Just like James Brown said,” and Sarina answered, “What’d he say?” Nalani dropped to her knees calling, “Please, please, please.” The magic of rock and roll is when you are doing it right a moment like that works, and that worked that night as I imagine it does every night. That moment summed up not only the bravery and abandon of Nalani & Sarina’s 45 minute opening set but something close to the heart of the rock and roll universe.  

P.S. On my way out, I picked up their first album, released in 2014. Though they’ve only gotten better, most of what I’m looking for in music was all there even then.  

Set list:

Wake Up
The Circle
Wanna be with You
Deep End
Get Away
Hung Up
Pretty Lies
Hold on, I'm Coming
Hard Times/We'll Be Free
Break of Dawn with Hit the Road Jack, Never Getting Back Together, Think, Kiss and Kansas City.