“I’d like to thank Merge for getting me off my couch.” — Michael Benjamin Lerner, Telekinesis
At one point or another, we’ve all read about an extraordinary concert in some book, or in Rolling Stone, on Pitchfork, or just on social media and thought “Damn, I wish I was there.” It doesn’t make much sense fretting about missing out if Band X played its entire album front-to-back or Band Y played a surprise show at two in the morning. That’s life, right? Can’t be there for everything. But it is music geek human nature to feel the slightest twinge of regret.
Still, every once in awhile, if you go to enough shows, you luck into seeing something special that will make others seethe in nerd jealousy. For me, last night’s Telekinesis set — at Merge Record’s CMJ showcase at New York’s Mercury Lounge — was one of those times.
And it all started because I couldn’t get into the crammed-to-capacity Sub Pop showcase at Knitting Factory. Instead of waiting around in a line going nowhere, I sucked it up and hoofed it by L train and F train to see if I could catch one of my favorite bands play a few of my favorite songs.
When I walked in, I saw Fred Armisen milling about in the back during the end of Eleanor Friedberger’s set. Known to most from Saturday Night Live and Portlandia, I chalked it up to being a New York celebrity sighting — and him being a music fan. But soon, as Michael Benjamin Lerner — Telekinesis’ singer-songwriter and drummer, took the stage, I noticed Armisen pulling a Hofner “Beatle” bass out of its case. Whoa. Then, I noticed Mac McCaughan setting up stompboxes on the other side of the stage. McCaughan, guitarist and singer of Superchunk, and Merge Records co-founder, had played a solo set earlier that night, and obviously stuck around to lend a hand.
It was clear the room was in for a treat. I personally kinda lost my shit.
As Lerner explained near the end of set, he had not played a live show in a really long time, and was prodded by Merge to get off the couch, and fly here to New York for CMJ. But Lerner didn’t have a new working band yet — hell, most of his new songs weren’t really even finished yet. But instead of doing what he described as a “lame acoustic set,” he dropped a few emails to McCaughan and Armisen to see if they were interested in joining him for a few songs. Not only did they agree, they worked up an entire set of Telekinesis’ songs just for this night. No rehearsals either, just a bunch of scattered sheets of paper with the chord progressions mapped out.
They then proceeded to unleash a loose, exuberant set of some Lerner’s best songs (“Tokyo”, “Car Crash”) and even a new song from an album due out next April. Telekinesis’ real skill is in crafting perfect, bouncy power pop songs brimming with lilting guitar melodies and pounding drums and vocal melodies that you cannot help but sing along to. Lerner is one of the best out there creating indie pop melodies — and honestly it’s a bit baffling why he’s not huge yet. Hopefully with a new record coming next spring, he’ll reach more people.
Yet, as one might expect, there were a few awkward moments for a band that had never really played together. McCaughan and Lerner at one point realized they were playing two different (though admittedly similar sounding) songs — “Foreign Room” and “Coast Of Carolina.” Lerner joked that he just had a realization that two songs he wrote have nearly identical chord progressions. Other times, they missed a few cues or played a missed note, or were just not always locked in like a more fully practiced working band.
But really, no one seemed to care in the slightest: many in the crowd were just having a blast witnessing something special and rare — flubs and all. That raw energy and loose, jokey feeling carried through with many fans singing along to Telekinesis’ impossibly catchy choruses. It was just damn impressive and a boatload of fun. I still cannot believe I was there to see it.