At Vassar, there are bands. There are loud bands, singer-songwriter bands, solo artists, bands you don’t know the name of but recognize from that one TH party or Mug event. In an era of music streaming services, the fluidity of uploading music is reflected in live performances. New student musicians keep surfacing, on both streaming platforms and physical stages.
Taking this ethos to heart, the Student Musicians’ Union (StuMu) offers extensive opportunities for students to learn how to write music or hone their skills. They provide studio spaces in Blodgett’s basement as well as workshops in songwriting and sound production. And once you’ve practiced and written a few guitar chords, you can perform at one of StuMu’s frequent showcases.
At one of these showcases on Thursday, Feb. 13, singer-songwriter duo Max (Eliot ’21) and Claire (Furtwangler ’21)—two members of band The Morning Moon, whose third member is currently abroad—sang warm folk songs, bouncing between sweet sounds from their mandolin, cello and acoustic guitar. The Mug flowered with folk music. Listeners swayed to harmonies. Pink balloons scattered the floor in a vague attempt to convey the Valentine’s Day theme. Far more prominent than an amorous atmosphere were the lively, and wide-ranging, performances.
The atmosphere shifted quickly, though. In the time it took to make the pilgrimage to the vending machine and watch a pack of sour gummy worms rewardingly make their way into my hands (dear processed sugar, if you’re reading, I love you), Milk took the stage, inviting everyone to stand up, to come closer. The crowd inched their way forward, hesitantly.
The room was just beginning to fill when I heard a somewhat familiar guitar riff I couldn’t quite pinpoint. I turned to Sophia, my best friend and date for the night. “What song is this?” I asked. “Kurt Vile?” No. “It’s Courtney Barnett!” Everything was suddenly electrified, the excitement of hearing an indie song you jump around to in your dorm room now brought to life by real people, real instruments, right in front of your eyes.
“It’s suddenly a rock concert,” Sevine Clarey ’20, Milk’s drummer, declared into the microphone. “Pedestrian at Best,” a Courtney Barnett song that thrums with angst and acerbic lyrics, filled the room.
It was a rock concert. In a crowd of two dozen, there were three emphatically shouting “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you” while channeling Barnett’s Australian punk, I-have-a-mullet energy. All of the earthy folk sounds had dissipated. The gummy worms were jumping with me. It was the magic of a good cover at work.
Following Milk, Lift the Moondog entered the makeshift stage. The crowd shifted forwards, as if by being closer to the speakers and to one another, an unassuming Thursday night showcase could match the energy of a TH party at 11 p.m. on a Saturday. From the reverb of the bass and the pounding of our feet on the tiled floor, humming boldly from a crowd of 20 or so, the music was kinetic energy.
From behind the drum kit, Chauncey Lo ’22 played into the Valentine’s Day theme, which was nearly forgotten as the pink balloons were kicked to the back of the room. “Today’s set will feature five songs, I think? Some songs will last longer than others, some will have clear stops and starts, some will blend into other ones but that’s just how love works. Look: It’s college, love is a messy affair, so basically if you mess up it’s all in the theme, baby.”
With that exordium the band flowed into the ’80s breakup classic, “I Will Survive.” The musicians slowed the song down, urging the audience to dramatize the sappy lyrics. Then, Jack Rogers ’22 dove into an aching guitar solo, and once again the energy shifted. Suddenly the whole crowd reeled from a breakup, together finding the strength to console each other. Lift the Moondog certainly understood the power of collective emotion.
I spoke to Lift the Moondog before their set, and they were unapologetic in their commitment to having fun with their music. “We play loud,” Jack Rogers ’22 said. “We try not to take ourselves super seriously. A lot of bands at Vassar try to give off the vibe of being really artsy or pretentious, but we have no problem taking a song and having fun with it. Speeding up halfway through the song, doubling the tempo.”
Their lighthearted attitude rubbed off on the audience. As the band members didn’t take themselves too seriously, listeners didn’t either, encouraging cheeky dancing and off-key singing. For Kara Lu ’22, treasurer of StuMu, this openness is palpable in the larger Vassar music scene.
“I often hear bands after sound check be like ‘Oh you did such a good job,’ and they genuinely mean it,” Lu said. “We’re all here to support each other.” Rogers agreed: “Showcases like this at other places tend to turn into battle of the bands no matter what. I think it’s a bit special being at Vassar and having all the bands have some amount of mutual respect for each other.”
Aidan Bova ’23 is the newest addition to Lift the Moondog. The bassist, who joined just two weeks ago, met Kara Lu because they live on the same floor, and the band needed a bass player. This flexible, word-of-mouth interaction seems to be a trend for the formation of many Vassar bands.
Dusky Bruce, a group of four first-year students, took the stage after Lift the Moondog, covering Mac Demarco and “Put me Thru” by Anderson .Paak. I spoke to rhythm guitarist Jonah Samuels ’23 about joining a band his first year.
“I realized early on that Ronan [Sidoti ‘23] was a really talented guitarist, and I made myself as appealing and close to him as possible as a rhythm guitarist,” Samuels said. “When he started the band he looked around for a guitarist, I was semi-competent, and I was in.”
By 10:15, the crowds cleared out. The balloons flitted in the corner of the room and instruments were zipped back into their cases. At the top of the familiar and foreboding spiral staircase, I asked Chauncey Lo about Vassar’s music scene.
“There definitely is a scene,” he said. “There is a scene at Vassar and it is at Vassar— and it’s got music. What else is there to say? I think that explains it all.”