The gong is out by the third song of the Akron/Family’s set and is ka-bonged by their auxiliary drummer, Megafaun’s Joe Westerlund. Surprisingly, it doesn’t come back. It doesn’t need to, though, not with all the other hand percussion, chants (some with onomatopoeic hand gestures), six-dude harmonies, and gnarly double-drummer jams the expanded Akron/Family offer up during their nearly two hour set at Maxwell’s. “Bear the torch!” someone shouts from the crowd. Really.
“Which fuckin’ torch are we bearin’?” an Akron barks back. “Anybody?” It’s a fine question, and even if the Williamsport-by-Williamsburg band doesn’t quite know, or maybe just care to admit, it’s one they bear instinctively. And do so, in fact, in front of an American flag, stars replaced by a white-on-blue tie-dye swirl. Three full-lengths (including last year’s gem, Love Is Simple), and a dozen or so tour EPs into an already hyperproductive career, the always-heady band has progressed into something even headier: blossoming utopianism. After all, they have two drummers.
“The next of these new compositions are for a 70 or 80-piece band,” bassist Miles Seaton announces early in the evening, and might actually mean it. Though the band has expanded to a sextet for their east coast/South by Southwest jaunt, enveloping all three members of Appalachian indie-psychers Megafaun, they’ve got some way to go. Even so, they excel at sounding even bigger. Throughout, the bubbling Seaton acts as the group’s most intense cheerleader, urging the crowd to snap, clap, stomp, and sing— and often succeeding, even if the hoped-for chaos never quite takes over the venerable Hoboken club. “Do it ironically, if you have to,” he adds at one point.
Ironic is something the band is not. Not remotely. There is a lot of jumping around. Seaton and guitarist Seth Olinsky (in a headband framing long hair and beard) automatically bounce frantically with certain transitions. Occasionally, mid-jam, the whole band—including Megafaun guitarist Brad Cook—leans suddenly towards drummer Dana Janssen for beat or two, as if in a psychically coordinated avant-dance move. Olinsky treats his guitar with effortless grace, slipping between his fingers and a pick. He also sings of elk and silly bears. The band feels their way through the new songs, jams leaning towards drones (Seaton gently takes a screwdriver to a guitar at one point, while Janssen twiddles effects), drum circle negotiations, and an occasional Afro-pop vibe.
Ironically, it takes a Grateful Dead standard to tighten them up halfway through the set, as they segue into Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight,” sung by Seaton, and don’t stop playing until it’s time to leave the stage. Janssen and Westerlund hammer at the toms, and the band tumbles through a sequence in the primal tradition of the ’68 Dead, songs falling in and out of each other in seamless transition. Olinsky leads the band carefully through a slipknotted figure, somewhere between a song and a jam, bursts of improvisation expanding and pulling back around it. It is punctuated by more chanting. The band keep segueing and segueing, landing in “Raising the Sparks” via a Rhodes interlude, and on into Love is Simple centerpiece “Ed Is A Portal,” mercifully stripped of most of its endgame beatboxing.
If seriousness of purpose is a flaw, yeah, the Akrons are rather silly. But it’s all so open and formless that torch doesn’t matter so much as the flame. An authentic halfway point between underground psych heroism and all-inclusive jambandary, the Akrons’ endless ambition lands them in their own realm entirely. With elk.
Akron/Family play with Megafaun tonight in the Eisner & Lubin Auditorium at NYU’s Kimmel Center. $4 for NYU students, $5 for non-NYU students.