Photos and recap by Melanie Stangl
It’s always a risk scheduling shows during playoff hockey season here in Pittsburgh. But that didn’t stop fans from heading to Cattivo on the mild evening of May 25th to check out a stacked deck of electronic music goodness. (It helped that the game was showing behind the bar, too.) Brooklyn natives Great Good Fine Ok were kicking off their national headlining summer tour, in support of their newest album, III, which dropped in January. Special guest morgxn and local hitmakers Emerson Jay rounded out the bill, for a night that balanced fun, danceable beats with passion, authenticity, and skill. (Not to mention sick lighting set-ups.) Each act brought their A-game with slick production, soaring vocals that didn’t falter, and live drums that took their studio tracks to the next level. They enjoyed the hell out of themselves, and that energy was contagious, spreading through the audience and compelling them to move. Despite small hurdles—like a delayed start, and the all-ages dividing line keeping the 21+ crowd mostly towards the back of the room—it was an engaging, irresistible time. If you’re a fan of electronic music, and you weren’t there…you missed out.
Emerson Jay was up first. A more-cramped-than-usual stage (thanks to the extensive equipment of all three acts) did little to diminish their usual charisma and energy. They got the crowd dancing right away with a catchy instrumental introduction, which led straight into the groovy track “When It’s Night.” Both it and the next song, the peppy, head-nodding “Perspective,” come from their award-winning EP, LOUIE, released last July. I’ve seen these guys play these tunes many times before, and it never, ever gets any less fresh or fun. This show was no exception. They jammed out where they stood and filled the room with sound, to the crowd’s delight.
Lead singer/synth player Jared Gulden thanked the audience repeatedly throughout their set, and acknowledged his Penguins pride by dedicating the next song to the team: “This is for the boys!” That track, “Feelz You,” is my personal favorite of theirs—a chill number that rides an intoxicating, well-layered wave of a beat. The cheers in its brief instrumental comedown seemed to show that others felt the same. Gulden grinned and acknowledged the praise with a tongue-in-cheek “How YOU doin’?” Dan Evans’ bass and Pat Donovan’s drums also stood out prominently in this rendition, which I enjoyed.
The high-octane “Lzy Me” brought the energy back up again, with people clapping along to the beat multiple times and amping up their dance moves. The band then introduced a new addition to their live set, also off of LOUIE: the dazzling “Light Out.” Guitarist Brandon Bates put his axe down for most of this one, focusing instead on hyping the crowd further, and starting another clap-along during the breakdown. Despite band members’ later reservations about this performance, from where I was standing, it sounded great, and was super fun to hear live for the first time. They closed out their set with another funky instrumental, during which Gulden remarked, “I wanna see everyone’s best dance moves right now.” Apparently not satisfied with that, he jumped offstage himself soon afterwards, and danced right along with the audience. It was a great, hilarious way to end a killer, crowd-pleasing performance.
While morgxn was setting up, the group around the bar grew substantially, in search of both alcohol and updates on the hockey game. Some attendees dipped early, not wanting to miss a second of the action. (This was the game that put us into the Stanley Cup Final after two periods of overtime, so I kind of get it.) But many stuck around, eager to see what was coming next.
Like his showmates, morgxn has a knack for creating engrossing, well-crafted electronic songs that flow seamlessly and speak honestly. But his style is a bit moodier and darker than either Emerson Jay or Great Good Fine Ok, drawing more heavily on 80’s influences and traditional instrumental sounds. The contrast was great, and his place in the middle of the lineup was spot-on.
But it wasn’t just his sound that won me over. It was his conviction. It would have been so easy for him to not give his all for this smaller audience on the first night of tour, but morgxn’s passion was potent and striking. He was totally engrossed in his performance, which enhanced his already-captivating beats and use of electronic effects. His voice soared in an impressive falsetto while never losing support. And he was a true showman: dancing; flashing the word “hopeless” embroidered on the back of his jacket when the lyrics warranted it; offering the mic to the crowd to sing; even hopping offstage to join them at a couple of points. Between songs, he was genuine and grateful. You could tell he wanted his set to be as rewarding and connecting as it was entertaining; that this really meant something to him. And by the time he left the stage, it meant something to us, too.
He urged the scattered attendees to “come a little closer” during his first song, “vital:” “It will be more fun—we’re all in a room together.” “hard pill to swallow” was next, a slow but intense track that entranced with low, buzzing synths and hard-hitting percussion from drummer Mike Robinson. Morgxn revealed to us that the third number, “submarine” was “not really out anywhere” and that the lyrics reflected a situation he had been through: “Fear can be a killer.” It was a slower, emotional ballad in which the piano stole the spotlight. I don’t remember all the details, but I wrote two words in all caps next to the name: “LOVE IT.”
“love you with the lights on” offered yet another heady (and slightly faster) beat, as well as charged lyrics: “Who do you run to/when you’re caught in the middle?/This could be simple/but baby, you love a riddle.” Audience members who had been pleasantly attentive at the beginning were now completely into it, vibing to the rhythm and cheering loudly at each song’s end. He had won us over. But we weren’t through yet.
He ventured back into dance territory with the rollicking “xx” (or “kiss kiss.”) Whenever a repeated melodic riff of “oh”’s came up, he would sing the first one, then hold the mic out to the crowd to sing the next one. (I admit…I contributed a line myself.) Another lesser-known track, “bruised,” followed. Morgxn described it as a “really special song” and pleaded, “Never change yourself for someone else…I am who I am, and I shouldn’t be afraid of it.” The heartfelt sentiment was touching, and the song was great, with drums that managed to be moody and kickass at the same time. At song’s end he recognized his bandmates (Robinson on percussion and Mark McKee on additional synths/bass/vocals), and took the opportunity to jump into the crowd and run around while the instrumental ran its course. He concluded with his anthemic smash hit “home,” which has racked up over four million plays on Spotify, and for which he just released a music video. (You should check that out here.) All in all, it was (to quote my notes again), “real damn good.” He showed both his talent and his heart, and each one enhanced the other.
The between-sets rush to the bar happened again, with both the drinks and the performances sparking excited chatter among the audience. My friend Matt bought me a shot, which I appreciated for both its efficiency and its assistance in feeling comfortable enough to dance—I had a feeling that the headliner was going to make me want to move. And I was right.
I talked specifically about what makes Great Good Fine Ok so…good…in my preview piece here. Essentially, they’re funky electropop done right, with intelligence and fire. Jon Sandler’s remarkable, frequently falsetto voice and Luke Moellman’s sharp ear for production are a dynamite match, resulting in a slew of quality singles, EP’s, remixes, and collaborations since their first release three years ago. I’ve only recently become familiar with them, but I was anxious to see the magic in action.
They seemed to take as much care with the visual component of their show as they did with its sound. The lighting was energetic, colorful, and cool as hell, bringing the songs to an even more exciting place. And the guys’ outfits were flashy and eclectic in all the right ways. Sandler sported a black sequined jacket over a kimono-style shirt, while Moellman rocked a shiny gold track coat and drumsticks that literally glowed in the dark. I always appreciate when bands make that extra effort, so long as the sound holds up appropriately—which in this case, it absolutely did.
GGFO consists of Sandler on vocals and Moellman on the synths and electronic effects (plus occasionally, the keytar), as well as touring musicians Danny Wolf on drums and Carey Clayton on guitar.
They started with a midtempo song from their debut EP Body Diamond, “Not Going Home,” before moving into a newer track, III’s “Already Love.” It was a happy, smooth ride and a nice way to ease into the set. The guys were stoked for the string of concerts ahead, with Sandler remarking afterwards, “This is a pretty cool show, the first one of the tour—let’s keep it going.” They picked up the pace a bit with another Body Diamond number, “By My Side,” in which both the vocals and percussion displayed impressive rhythmic dexterity.
Next up was one of my absolute favorites: the funky, infectiously fun “Carried Away,” from their second EP, 2M2H (Too Much to Handle.) It was smart to build up to this one; by now the crowd was completely engrossed in the music, and it was clear the band was having a damn good time delivering it. Moellman broke out his keytar, and Wolf took the lead for a moment with a sick drum solo. It was a standout moment of the night. They followed that up with “Everything to Me,” which was a bit more chill and vibing. I appreciated their keen sense of how a setlist should ebb and flow.
I confess, I didn’t catch the name of the next track. What I can tell you is that it ended with a crowd-pleasing keytar solo, which is a phrase that really can’t apply to too many other bands. They then moved into an unexpected cover of Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” It was a big hit: between the guitar solo from Clayton, Moellman singing into a long clear plastic tube which distorted his voice, and Sandler grabbing a guitar towards the end and jamming out himself, they made the song their own and showed off their versatility. After the audience’s appreciative cheers and whoops, Sandler said with a big smile, “Thank you! That was for Prince…and the first time I ever played a guitar solo onstage.”
They ended the night, fittingly, with three more tracks from III. “Holding You” was catchy and rhythmic, while “Always” sped things up and inspired a clap-along during the instrumental. Sandler was genuinely grateful and invited people to come chat with them at the merch table afterwards, before diving into the album’s breakout single: the joyous, contagiously danceable “Take It or Leave It.” It was a fitting conclusion to a show packed front to back with energy, authenticity, and sheer fun.
In my post-concert high, I spent more money than I probably should have on band merch and snapped a selfie with Sandler, who was gracious and appreciative. My friend and I walked out into the warm Lawrenceville night, buzzing with what we just jammed to and the clear passion behind it. And, after all that…we still got to catch the victorious end of the Pens game.
In case I haven’t made myself clear enough: don’t sleep on these guys. They just might be the next big thing. Follow along with them on Facebook here, as well as morgxn here. Emerson Jay’s next scheduled performance is at the Deutschtown Music Festival next month—keep up with them here.
Great Good Fine Ok