Wisdom Hall and Boss Bar; Motel Motel were at ease in both, and at home in neither.
The up-and-coming rock band from Brooklyn – hailed by the New York Press as one of the top 20 bands currently playing in New York City – brought their jittery energy to Cairo this week, culminating in two gigs at Sawy Culture Wheel on Monday and Maadi’s Cairo Boss Bar on Tuesday.
Both can be tough venues. The sober, sit-down setup of Sawy’s Wisdom Hall does a band of Motel Motel’s ilk no favors. But despite this trip being their first opportunity to perform abroad, the five band members struck an easy rapport with their mostly Egyptian audience, bantering between numbers about their Khan El-Khalili purchases and trying out their new-minted Arabic phrases.
The following night, the dimly-lit confines of Boss Bar presented its own set of challenges: a snagging sound system, columns obscuring the view to the tiny stage, and a mixed, chattering crowd. “This place reminds me of America, drawled front-man Eric Engel halfway through the set. “Like some little bar in Louisville, Kentucky, where everybody’s smoking and no-one’s really listening.
Except we were listening, on both nights, in both venues. As Motel Motel led us into the thick underbrush of “Forest, much of the audience was right there with them.
“People get lost in the great dark woods . Lord I wish I was one of them, sang Engel, his voice straining, twisting and spiraling in a manner reminiscent of the psych folk stylings of Devendra Banhart.
Driving the music were the head-nodding rock rhythms of drummer and percussionist Jeremy Duvall, textured with intricate guitar and bass riffs from Timothy “Hawaiian Thor Sullivan and fleshed out by Mickey Theis on piano/keyboard. Round this off with the tone-bending country twang of Erik Gundel’s steel pedal, and you have a sound that slips out of your grasp.
There are plenty of shifts in a Motel Motel performance. Engel’s wiry frame curls and contorts with his voice, feet pedaling restlessly in place.
The band members – all accomplished, multidirectional musicians – switch and swap instruments seamlessly, sometimes even in the middle of a number. Several songs, including opener “Cowboy, start with the vulnerability of a single bare riff – sometimes a single chord – repeated with the insistence of an alarm.
Layers are smoothed in, one by one, as the music foams and swell into a wave, teased higher and higher until it builds up a huge wall of defiance, which finally breaks over the five young men on stage, bathing them and us.
“It’s not my usual kind of music, but I was really drawn in, said Adam Molyneux-Berry, a musician based in Tokyo who attended the Sawy performance. “There’s so much layering, with all these little riffs and discords, but they’re so tight and so together.
There is also literal movement in the music. Their EP and full length album are called
“Old York and “New Denver, respectively; songs include “Harlem, “Virginia and “Mexico alongside the more elemental “Forest, “Mountain and “River. Yet their relationship with places in their music feels raw, like an open wound.
“I’ve lost my home, cries Engel in one number, and this lament echoes throughout their work. There is a pervasive sense of loss, of hunger, a thrumming yearning.
In “Harlem, the narrator describes being in a town where “people sleep through a thousand years of sadness and displacement. He is eager to return to his home, New York. But when he does, he finds people “looking at me like I’m someone else’s problem. The final line tumbles out in a flight of jagged chords: “Moving back to Harlem.
Where does it come from, this agitation?
“We’re all from totally different places: Hawaii, Denver, Albany, Virginia, the gregarious Sullivan explained to Daily News Egypt. “We live in New York City right now, but no-one is really from New York. So you always feel like an outsider, in transit . there’s always this longing.
How fitting for a band called Motel Motel to feel constantly in transit. As they leave, they tell me that they started out as a bunch of friends playing music, never expecting it to snowball like this. When, mere hours before they’re due at the airport, I ask them to sum up their impressions of Egypt, Gundel’s quiet contribution is: “Joyful.
There are moments of joy, too, in Motel Motel’s performance; the moments when they let go, allowing the music to take them where it may, losing and finding themselves in the process. It’s clear, watching them play, that they dwell in uncertainty – and that, for now, there’s no place else they’d rather be.