“It’s quiet in here. Really quiet.” This declaration from the frontman of local favorites (and this year’s Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase victors) Mad Nomad last night at Stickyz was, as I heard it, a gauntlet thrown, a provocation, an incitement to the twenty or so assembled to leave the cozy confines of their votive-lit tables and come forth to get visceral — to shimmy, sweat or at the very least stand in front of stage. There was a hopeful pause. Alas, instead of some reassuring hollering or an obliging congregation of receptive fans who just needed to gulp down a few more before getting loose, there was a silence that one could stretch out and nap in. It was cringe-inducing. I grew concerned over how this night would devolve, as the awkwardness was tangible and I wanted better for these excellent bands, especially headliners Diarrhea Planet. However, despite the impediment of a thin and at least initially uptight crowd, Mad Nomad and Diarrhea Planet delivered, playing sets that were powerful, lush and in Diarrhea Planet’s case, ecstatically awesome.
I rolled into Stickyz at 9:30 and had I not heard really loud live music when I drove by on my quest for a parking space, I would have thought I was in the wrong place. I must have just missed the first set from Little Rock locals Crooked Roots. Mad Nomad launched into their riff-heavy, energetic brand of rock that this paper has described as “weirdly nostalgic.” This is not a bad thing. Au contraire. Their music is, to me, the sonic equivalent of a really drunk BBQ in mid summer on your best friend’s patio that gets crashed by some unanticipated but totally welcome sexy strangers. The percussion is unrelenting and propulsive, and along with Joe Holland’s textured vocals, the sum total of the whole shebang is really well-crafted music to get down to.
I’ve already mentioned that, unfortunately for Mad Nomad (and not for lack of trying), there was minimal getting-down happening stage-front during their set. I have also mentioned that this concerned me. Mad Nomad had responded to the crowd’s coldness with sarcastic stage banter (“Thanks for the crowd, guys; How many songs left?”) — who can blame them — and their sensual music was driven by an increasingly frenetic, borderline aggressive let’s-get-this-over-with energy. It didn’t work against their music; in fact, they sounded great, even if it was clear they were not digging the show’s vibe. I was concerned because up next was Nashville-based Diarrhea Planet, a punk-influenced collective that purveys raucously joyful anthem-ready singalong rock gems and is renowned (via Pitchfork, SPIN, Washington Post, etc.) for the energy and enthusiasm of their live show. If the crowd, which mostly consisted of texting high school students and a smattering of aloof indie denizens, remained this frigid, I wondered how Diarrhea Planet’s live show, which in my experience was fueled by a symbiotic give and take with the crowd, would adapt.
I don’t know why I was concerned. When the six-piece band took the stage, looking a little fatigued and wary perhaps but also intent and focused, the energy shift was colossal. People emerged from the venue’s hinterlands, testing out their dance moves and fist pumps like bashful seventh graders at first but then, feeding off the spectacle before them, with greater conviction. And “spectacle” is the right word. These guys put on a show. They jump around, assume 80’s music-video formations, and get their fans on stage (inviting one fellow, cheekily identified as the “least punk person in the room”, to come sing onstage “to prove anyone can be punk” in a refreshing rebuttal against the inaccessible, too-cool nihilism pervasive in punk rock). They took requests. They played fan favorites, including the manic “Ghost with a Boner” and “Separations,” pitching the room into a crescendo, as well as what they identified as new material, which sounded excellent. The crowd, finally drunk enough, was getting loose. An ill-advised stage dive was attempted, briefly destabilizing what was possibly a crucial piece of equipment. Things were bouncy enough stage-front that glass was shattered. The band, who at the start of the show was just delivering a performance because they’re professionals and that’s what they do, was not just giving anymore — there was a symbiosis of crowd and band, elevating it from a one-sided show to an experience. And, at the end of it all, they played two extra songs, obliging the crowd’s requests for more, concluding with a goosebumps-inducing rendition of “Skeleton Head.”
Full disclosure: I was not a bystander during this show, not that I think that it particularly matters. I was front and center, bouncing around like a lunatic with complete and utter disregard for my dignity. My flailing limbs had succeeded in clearing a six-foot radius, and despite the space I had commandeered, I found myself occasionally careening into some very patient showgoers (perhaps now is the time to say: I’m sorry for sweating on you, kind strangers). I didn’t care at the time. Not because I’m an asshole, though arguments could be made to support this assignation. But I was on a different planet. I had teleported elsewhere.
Diarrhea Planet will be back in Little Rock for Riverfest, and are scheduled to play the Stickyz stage Sunday, May 25th at 8 p.m.