Floating Action returned to the stage last night for an opening slot with the hilariously eccentric Benji Hughes at The Grey Eagle (more on Hughes to come). The band has maintained a low profile lately while it preps a new release, but absence clearly makes the heart grow fonder.
It’s hard to go wrong with a Floating Action show, whether it’s been four months or four days since the last appearance, because there’s a refreshing elasticity to the band that keeps its audience guessing. This time around, the set tended toward the more aggressive. Frontman Seth Kauffman upped the pace on tracks like “50 Lashes” and “Robespierre,” trading the slow burning grooves and languid delivery for a rock-heavy sensibility. Sure, some of the subtleties were buried or lost, and sure, the uber-mellow rhythms are one of best parts about Floating Action. But no matter the pace, sharp backbeats and fuzzy organs are always part of the equation, and there’s a lot to be said for a good old fashioned rock and roll show.
The 15-song set covered all the territory a fan could hope (with the disappointing exception of “To Connect”), reminding one of just how many standout tracks Kauffman has delivered over the past several years. There’s no use picking favorites with such consistently outstanding writing, but the infectious grooves of “Rogue River” and “So Vapor” are especially enchanting in person, and last night was no exception. Kauffman also debuted a new track, “Matador,” that hinted at a harder sound and reassured fans that Floating Action will continue its reign as Asheville’s most reliable source of exciting new rock.
Longtime bassist Michael Libramento was noticeably absent from the lineup, and rumor has it that he’s been enlisted to join a high-profile rock band on a national tour. Although the multi-instrumentalist left some awfully big shoes to fill, Harvest Records’ Mark Capon proved a seamless replacement. In fact, the newbie didn’t just keep up, his punchy bass lines kept the frantic pace of tracks like “Cindercone” and “Modern Gunslinger” steady and alive.
The band closed the set on a high note, with the delightfully bouncy “Lost All My Money,” which slipped into George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” before circling back onto itself. Not a bad way to end a show.
And then the spectacle began.
A little background for those unfamiliar with Benji Hughes: The Charlotte-based singer resembles a husky Duane Allman, sporting huge sunglasses, wavy hair that hangs halfway down his back and a beard that’s nearly as long. He sings in a deep baritone, reminiscent of The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, writes pop-friendly rock songs with an emphasis on partying and has a habit of shedding his clothes during live shows.
It was clear from the start that Hughes wasn’t interested in showing up, going through the motions and heading home. The chatty frontman was hellbent on engaging the crowd, and by the second song he had joined them on the floor. Some stayed fixed to the stage as though he wasn’t there, some pounded their fists in his direction, and everyone waited for the increasingly unpredictable singer’s next move.
It came in the form of a half-serious rant about the sound, which proved to be one of the more uncomfortable and hilarious moments of the night.
“I can’t hear the vocals,” Hughes noted after the third song. “If they can’t hear what I’m saying, there’s no point. We just look like a bunch of turkeys up there.” It was hard to tell if he was genuinely irritated, playing for laughs or somewhere between two, but the audience was amused, and the entire episode served as an ice breaker for what was to come.
Once the issue was resolved, he carefully noted that it wasn’t the sound guy’s fault, then complimented the crowd. “Asheville is great,” he began. “I heard there’s a big energy crystal under this place and that all the girls take their tops off at the end of the night.”
Wondering what that’s supposed to mean? Don’t overthink it.
From there, Hughes spent the majority of the show in the crowd, disappearing during instrumental breaks to walk around the room or refill his cup. Not surprisingly, Hughes eventually ditched his tight red sweater and undershirt, gyrating shirtless through the audience and strutting around the stage.
It’s hard to deny that the shenanigans were entertaining and amusing, but they were also distracting. Hughes’ writing is too good to be a novelty, and it deserves a more serious listen than the slapstick delivery suggests. By the end of the night, at least half the crowd had already retired. One has to wonder if those people ever saw past Hughes’ bizarre jokes and shirtless belly to the masterful pop creations that brought him to The Grey Eagle in the first place.