It was a little-too-warm-for-February evening, the kind of night that made me guiltily grateful for climate change as I walked the half mile from the Belmont red line stop to the 120-year-old brewery and bar turned music venue in Lakeview. Despite the unnaturally pleasant walk, the sight of the glowing red “Schubas” sign, its light trickling across the aged brick facade, looked as welcoming as ever. I passed through the neon glow, opened the door, and walked straight into the 1900s.
Dozens of hip 20-somethings crowded around the carefully maintained, pre-Prohibition Era bar front, chatting and drinking pints under soft yellow light oozing from the lamps on the ceiling. Snaking my way around the sea of flannel and waxed wood tables to the other end of the bar, I eventually reached the intimate concert hall, where stage hands were busy preparing for the show, featuring singer-songwriter Nick Leng. Born in South Africa and raised in LA, Nick got on my radar only a couple weeks ago, when a song of his, “Lonely Shade of Blue,” came up on Spotify’s “late night vibes” playlist. Intrigued, I went on to discover that Nick had come up with a formula that every songwriter dreams of discovering; he had landed tracks on several massively popular Spotify playlists, including “Sad Indie,” and “my life is a movie.” As a musician myself, I needed to know what was up.
I was unexpectedly early to the show, and with time to kill, I quickly began chatting it up with the true stars of the night… the sound and light guys. Grateful to be appreciated, they eagerly showed me their setup, tracing the sound system from their rigs at the back of the venue all the way to the stage, which was laden with a dystopian-looking array of guitar pedals, floor processors, and other effect racks to be used by the headlining act, the sight of which firmly snapped me back in the 21st century. Engrossed by their explanations, I failed to notice that the space had started to fill. When I finally did notice, however, my heart sank.
Was this my fate? Was I going to have to watch this show while being surrounded by sedentary mustachioed men in baseball caps drinking $10 beers all night? The answer was yes, but as it turns out, my fears of them being un-fun concertgoers were completely unfounded.
As the show started, I quickly learned that there were two main groups in the audience. One group was there for the opener – the band’s friends, siblings, cousins, you name it – they were there and they were proud. The opener went by the name Crandelion, and, in contrast to the military-grade setup of his successor to the stage, he only required a mic, keyboard, and a vintage 1960s guitar that, as he excitedly told me after his set, he had copped off of Reverb just last week. He had a great mustache too.
The second group was there on a whim, and it was all because of Owen. Now Owen was the life of the party, who, upon hearing that I was from Madison, where he had lived for several years, promptly bought me a… water. Thanks Owen! Now, not only did Owen manage to convince his whole friend group to come watch Nick Leng – an artist that only he knew about – but he had also managed to find out that the parents of said artist were right behind us, watching their son perform.
Naturally, I turned around and started talking to Nick’s dad, Tony. Years of singing in a punk band in the 70s had left his voice permanently shredded, his words barely catching onto the air he forced from his chest. Regardless, Tony was eager to tell me about Nick’s childhood. He had noticed his son’s musical ability from a young age, choosing to home-school him in order to give the young Nick ample time to practice piano. It was at the pronunciation of this “piano” that a barrage of projectile spittle sprayed my attentively listening right ear, which, in order to catch his hollow voice over the din, was mere inches from his mouth. I didn’t mind. I had a water in my hand, a water that I didn’t even pay for. I kept listening.
“This is all he could do,” Tony said, gesturing to the stage, where his son’s hands were busy flying across the keyboard. While Tony had come all the way from California, I could tell his mind had drifted back to the Golden State, as he began recalling a young Nick seated at the family piano playing Fantaisie-Impromptu, a notoriously speedy Chopin piece. To hear a retired punk musician speak of Chopin certainly caught me off guard, but this was quickly remedied when his wife, whose name I failed to catch, told me that she was a classical pianist herself. When I asked her how her son came to get into the electronic side of music and what that meant for his practicing habits, she chuckled.
“He wanted to quit [classical piano], but I didn’t let him,” she said with a smile.
That decision paid off: Nick’s piano skills were certainly top notch, as he performed with such an intensity that he deemed the stool by his keyboard practically useless, instead curling his body over the keys like a mother cradling her child. His unique, inflective voice was notable too, as he played with the microphone like the lips of his lover through various stages of a relationship, delicately whispering love songs like “Lonely Shade of Blue” and “Spirals,” while grimacing through the likes of “Forget About Me.”
Now, to be completely honest, “Forget About Me,” the opening track to his new album SPIRALS and a song that left my jaw on the floor upon first listen, was one of the only reasons why I was there. While other moments on the album, particularly “My Mind is a Mess in the Morning,” and “Ruth,” managed to maintain the momentum of the record, the large gaps in between were less convincing, which carried over in its live performance.
His technical abilities were undeniable, yet I still wasn’t convinced that the music was all that it put itself out to be. I found that hidden under loads of gadgetry and an incessant sub-bass lay cliche lyrics that used just the right amount of syllables to say nothing at all. At times, bouts of slamming percussion, keys, and bass hit me over the head like a tawdry sonic hammer, making intermittent interludes of dazy solo piano feel as though they were symptoms of a musical concussion. When the show finished and the lights came on, I was slightly surprised I didn’t have a headache.
Maybe I would have appreciated the music more if I wasn’t so hung up on Leng’s setup, which I nerdily found to be the most impressive aspect of the performance. After the show, I asked Nick about his technological setup, who, like the sound guys before, was thrilled to explain, even bringing me up on stage to show off his toys. He spoke at a breakneck speed, his hands rapidly flipping switches and knobs to demonstrate as he talked. Seeing him reenact his set up close certainly gave me a greater appreciation for his performance, as he managed to handle dozens of different technological parameters while simultaneously playing keyboard and singing.
“These are my instruments,” he said, I assume likening himself to late hip-hop producer J Dilla, one of the first producers to use music technology like an instrument in-and-of itself. Except this wasn’t J Dilla, this was Debussy if he listened to Aphex Twin.
Speaking of Aphex Twin, Leng makes it clear where his influences lie. You can find his personal playlists on his Spotify (where he boasts over 500,000 monthly listeners) featuring the quintessential Late Romantic era composers, but also Flying Lotus, Q-Tip, and Radiohead. It’s a broad array of influences, one that I still don’t know how I feel about in its execution.
“Music is a language and there are lots of different accents,'' he said as I hopped off the stage. By immersing himself in those accents, he began to develop his own, which he is still in the process of developing. Most of his material seems to not quite know what it is, sounding either like a battle between vastly different influences awkwardly vying for dominance, or, if a victor is firmly established, overly derivative. When he does get those pieces to click into place, however, the result is unique and truly stunning music, showing what the young artist is capable of doing in the future.
While the majority of Leng’s music is not my cup of tea, it’s inspiring to see someone with the courage to succeed in merely trying to find their voice and share it with the world, as we all, whatever our medium may be, try to do the same.
Thumbnail image by Alex Neuser