REVIEW: NE-HI, Steep Leans, Cove Sauce @ Middle East Upstairs 03/31

(Jason Balla, Photo by Olivia Gehrke)

Chicago rockers NE-HI coasted through Boston last Friday to deliver a show of infectiously catchy indie rock bliss. With the Middle East’s new venue, Sonia, opening up the same night and a handful of stacked local shows, it was questionable on whether the NE-HI show would draw a dense crowd, but the Middle East Upstairs, though not sold out, was a packed house.

The night was started off by local rock band Cove Sauce. The sound produced by the band’s three members was pleasantly scuzzy, evoking an angry slacker rock vibe (think the sound of bands signed to Exploding in Sound). It was deliciously heavy, and amped the crowd for the next local opener, Steep Leans.

Steep Leans put on a solid set of their dreamy, but charged music. The band began their set with “Nightmare City,” one of the most iconic tracks of their 2015 debut Grips on Heat. As singer Jeff Somers crooned It’s so shitty / you’re so pretty / on a deathtrip cruising to nightmare city, the crowd was already seduced and ready for more. Steep Leans played a tight, energetic set composed of other songs off the debut, ending with the melodic and ever-so-nostalgic “Books End.”

By the time NE-HI took the stage, the locals packed into the Middle East were buzzing. The band got a warm welcome as they sauntered up and launched into “Sisters,” a track off their latest album, Offers, which was released in late February. As full and intricate as their recordings are, NE-HI’s live versions of their songs carry a sort of energy that can’t even be imagined through simply listening to Offers. In tracks like “Buried on the Moon,” which in itself is a perfectly written pop tune with a hook that makes the heart sigh, NE-HI amplified the energy and just belted it out while the guitars screamed.

Besides presenting that energy through their sharp, darting, and blissful songs, NE-HI had a more-than-electric stage presence. Guitarist and vocalist Jason Balla swayed and bounded around the stage to the music which, out of context, would perhaps look a bit bizarre, but it complemented the music in such a significant way. It was nothing short of infectious—everyone lining the front of the stage could be seen itching to move with Balla as they swam through the sweet melodies of tracks like “Prove” and “Palm of Hand.”

Though only the fourth song into the set, “Since I’ve Been Thinking” off NE-HI’s self-titled debut, was a noticeable peak of the show. The song doesn’t have an iconic build-up to a bold chorus, or even a big chorus at all. However, there is a cutting guitar line that matches the vocal melody as the bass chugs along behind, and these elements continue for almost five minutes. The live result was hypnotic. It was the equivalent of a unified trance enveloping the entire venue. Everyone was swallowed up in the music, dancing and just genuinely enjoying themselves, a mood the band seemed to echo right back.

In between songs, NE-HI engaged in some banter about sports and the city of Boston, mentioning that sports never seem to be a popular topic at shows. This was NE-HI’s first time back to Boston since opening for fellow Chicago natives Twin Peaks at the Sinclair in May of 2016. By the reaction of the crowd this time around, they were going to make sure NE-HI would circle back to Boston again.

As NE-HI closed with “Stay Young,” the crowd was still waking up from their music-induced hypnosis. Once it hit that NE-HI was done though, they snapped out of it to loudly and passionately urge the band back on stage. The members of NE-HI all locked eyes as if to decide to come back for just one more, but by the briefness of the silent discussion, it was pretty clear that it was never even a question.

NE-HI bounded back on stage for a tune they had only played one other time in the past year, according to Balla. The crowd relished every last second of the encore, consuming every note and ounce of energy the band produced, hoping it was enough until next time NE-HI rolled into town.

-Olivia Gehrke