Bent Knee (Art Rock)
Am I Wedding Crashing? Bent Knee, Jammin’ Java, and the Most Unique Show I’ve Ever Experienced
Last Friday, I ventured south from my home in Philadelphia to my old stomping grounds in Vienna, Virginia, to experience one of my all time favorite bands, Bent Knee. Hailing from Boston, Bent Knee cultivates what is assuredly the most undefinable sound (in terms of genre) that I’ve ever experienced. So when I ventured over to Jammin’ Java’s website to purchase tickets, I was more than surprised to see that the show was being presented for free. I was further confused upon arriving to the venue, as several formally dressed gentlemen passed me on my way in the doors. As I walked through the curtains to the main floor, it became instantly clear what I had walked into — undoubtedly the raddest wedding rehearsal dinner I’ve ever attended.
Let me be clear, Bent Knee are in no sense a wedding band. Their music is dynamically, melodically, and rhythmically diverse in almost every contemporary sense; it’s cathartic, euphoric, empowering, and unnerving. But it was clear that the happy couple, Greg and Megan, were fans enough to choose Bent Knee regardless of the occasion; and with an accompaniment of pizza and friends at a venue as cool as JJ, who could argue with their judgement.
The show began, absent of vocalist and keyboardist Courtney Swain (as well as violinist Chris Baum, and sound designer Vince Welch, who were unable to make the show), with bassist Jessica Kion’s solo project. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I was unfamiliar with her solo work, but her set etched the widest smile on my face for its entirety. The music twists sharply and often between whimsical marches and heartfelt, moving sequences. It exhibits a level in freedom within the confines of a song that many composers strive for (but few succeed).
After a quick intermission, the members of Bent Knee took to the stage to tackle their own catalogue, as well as solo work from Ben Levin and Courtney Swain. The emotional atmosphere of the set took flight as they broke into “I’m Still Here,” off of 2014 release Shiny Eyed Babies. The beginning of that track was the one and only portion of the show I took video of, as the soundscape created within it is too moving to ignore. Later, Bent Knee brought a surprising amount of heat to fellow Shiny Eyed Babies track “Being Human.” For a song so rooted in orchestral power, this iteration of the band surprisingly captured nearly the full energy of the studio cut despite the absence of Baum and Welch.
Bent Knee capped off a truly intimate and moving set with “Way Too Long,” which, if you haven’t heard it before, may induce the effects of manic euphoria on the brain. It’s a filthy piece of music in the best way possible. Acrobatic vocals on the Part of Courtney Swain, Gavin and Jessica’s seismic grooves, and some wild fretwork on the part of Ben resulted moreso in a cauterization of the set, rather than a capping. Despite Jammin' Java only being at a fraction of its capacity, the energy in the room was tangible. After returning for encore, the house was rendered silent by “Good Girl,” most recently released on 2015 LP Say So. I can’t effectively put into words how captivating this song was in a live environment. I encourage every reader to explore this song. Courtney’s vocal work is honestly harrowing, and the atmosphere of the song throughout often takes me to new places introspectively. Bent Knee left the stage for the night and I was still smiling awfully wide.
My friends and I had the pleasure of talking with Ben pretty immediately after the show. Ben was my introduction to Bent Knee, as I was first familiar with his fantastic guitar teaching channel, so it was great to get to know him better. I then proceeded to merge two of my favorite things, discussing Steven Wilson’s work with Courtney Swain. I tried, but failed, to track down the couple-to-be to thank them for organizing what was absolutely the most intimate live music experience I’ve ever been a part of. So Greg and Megan, if you catch wind of this article, thanks!
I encourage everyone reading this to listen both to Say So and Shiny Eyed Babies, and support some of the most uniquely innovative musicians I’ve ever heard. Bent Knee are something special.