The crowd was still arriving when Nick Thorburn, Honus Honus, Joe Plummer, and Brett Morris took the stage on Thursday night.
It makes some sense, especially given that Mister Heavenly is a band many might not know by name. When they first came to town in 2010, fans packed Café Du Nord largely because of Superbad actor Michael Cera, who the group tapped to play bass on their first tour.
Cera is gone now, but the doom wop by way of death metal sound that encapsulates Mister Heavenly remains. Assembled at the center of the Fillmore’s stage, Thorburn (Islands, The Unicorns), Honus Honus (Man Man), Plummer (Modest Mouse) and Morris looked like a garage band with nothing to lose. They played like one too, running through tracks from their 2011 debut, Out of Love, and last year’s follow-up, Boxing the Moonlight.
Morris — who some may know as the lead engineer for comedy podcasting mecca Earwolf — seemed right at home. Thorburn was his typical blend of charming and self-deprecating, asking several times if the audience liked them but playing with the confidence of an artist who knows he has something to offer. Mister Heavenly’s catalogue is filled with songs that harken back to ’50s sock-hop pop and then suddenly devolve into ear-splitting mayhem.
For those who’ve tired of the homogeneous state of mainstream music, Mister Heavenly is here to whisk you away to an island paradise of mosh pits and guitar hooks. They also served as a fitting opener for headliner Why? — another band that adheres to no expectations and is much the better for it.
Blending hip-hop with indie-rock is a tricky proposition. On one hand, the popularity of rap with indie rock listeners is definitely on the rise. Kendrick Lamar is a Pitchfork darling — though he is obviously far, far more than that — and music blogs that were once relegated to tracking the activities of sad white men with guitars are now buzzing with the latest exploits of acts like Chance the Rapper, Solange, and more.
Why? is the former solo project of Berkeley raised Yoni Wolf, who has now transferred the moniker onto his four member band. Arranged in an open half-moon on the Fillmore stage, Wolf channeled his local roots into a performance that at times felt like the poet Allen Ginsberg if he was the frontman for Explosions in the Sky. His verses were breathless, imbued with urgency and a ragged determination.
Wolf’s discography is made up of complex songs that veer in and out of catchy moments, never lingering too long in the places that most immediately please the ear but knowing exactly when and where they’re needed. Praise must also be paid to Wof’s lyrics. Gems like “Yours is a funeral I’d fly to from anywhere” — a line from “These Few Presidents” that he proffered with bittersweet resignation — stood out as evidence that the line between poetry and rap is often simply the addition of an instrument.
It would also be a shame not reference Wolf’s excellent “Hayward / Hey would ya blow me” joke, which may be painfully dumb but also was delivered with perfect seriousness during a break between songs. Also of note were Wolf’s cohorts on stage, a tightly knit group who without hesitation launched into some impressively serviceable interim music when their frontman was forced to change mic chords midway through their set.
It was a performance marked by impressive musicianship and playful musicians — a combo that almost always pays immense dividends.
By the time Why? had finished, the Fillmore crowd had received not one but two sterling examples of how wonderfully refreshing it is to be weird. Both Mister Heavenly and Why? are far more than their various eccentricities, but neither would be nearly as fun without them.