It is d*mn near impossible to transition from a backing member of a popular band to a solo career without facing constant comparison. For instance, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were unable to escape the banner of Talking Heads when forming Tom Tom Club. Dave Grohl can try all he wants, but he is always going to be remembered as the drummer for Nirvana. Likewise, Sean Carey, drummer and backing vocalist for Justin Vernon’s famed project Bon Iver, has faced similar changes for his solo project, S. Carey.
On March 26, S. Carey made a stop at Cat’s Cradle backroom on his spring 2018 tour. This break from the usual Bon Iver touring schedule served to support his latest record, “Hundred Acres.”
Kicking off the show was local opener XOXOK, the stage name of Carrboro’s Keenan Jenkins. Armed with only a Stratocaster and a reverb pedal, XOXOK carefully crafted a soft blend of R&B, folk and ambient music, somewhat similar to that of Frank Ocean. Although he was completely alone on stage, XOXOK compensated by pouring his whole body into his performance. Despite the lack of a rhythm section, he often rocked and swayed along to the groove of each song. The most powerful moments of XOXOK’s performance occurred when he utilized his upper register.
Matt McCaughan, also a drummer in the band Bon Iver, was pleasantly surprised by XOXOK’s set.
“He has an insane voice and really cool guitar parts,” McCaughan said. “The way he used reverb was very musical. It gave it a wider soundstage and almost an orchestral sound behind him.”
Gordi, a singer-songwriter from Australia, followed next. Gordi—real name Sophie Payten—performed a stripped back rendition of her material, switching between guitar, electric piano and harmonium. Although her recordings contain a wider array of instrumentation, subtraction allowed more space for her strong alto register. The highlight of her set was her performance of “Heaven I Know,” in which she utilized a looping pedal and autotune to create an electronic, yet organic atmosphere. Another song worth noting was her excellent cover of Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardener.”
S. Carey played the final set of the evening. A majority of the set was centered around Carey’s latest album, “Hundred Acres.” Whereas in the past, Carey has performed with a minimalistic setup to complement his Steve Reich-ian style, this time he brought out a full band. This approach felt appropriate for Carey’s new material, giving these songs an energetic, yet dreamy folk atmosphere. Jeremy Boettcher, Zach Hanson and Ben Lester joined Carey onstage, as well as Gordi on backing vocals. Each member’s ability to switch instruments from song to song proved to be one of the most engaging aspects of the set. Naturally, Carey made the most transitions, cycling in between guitars, electric piano and drums, all while maintaining his role as lead singer.
“It makes the set fly by and keeps everything fresh,” Carey said. “It’s nice to be able to play more drums because I don’t get to do that as much in this band.”
Playing drums while singing is no easy feat, especially while maintaining the breath control necessary for Carey’s choirboy-esque vocals. Still, Carey’s gorgeous tenor shined through, with harmonies provided by Gordi’s alto.
Whitney Keller, a photojournalist, was no stranger to S. Carey’s live show.
“I’ve seen him once before and it was just as beautiful,” Keller said. “Last time was more intimate because it was a smaller venue. This time was more mastered in terms of sound, more full. It felt more similar to the CD.”
Philip Keller, Whitney’s husband, shared a similar sentiment. “[Sean] seems like a really humble, relatable guy, who just happens to make incredible music,” he said.
Rather than performing another S. Carey song or a cover for the encore, the group performed Gordi’s track “I’m Done” which featured Carey on the second verse.
Matt McCaughan mused upon watching one of his Bon Iver bandmates play with another group.
“It’s so hard to view [S. Carey] as a separate thing because he’s still the Sean that I know,” McCaughan said. “It makes you realize how much of his own voice he brings to Bon Iver.”
All in all, S. Carey, Gordi and XOXOK made for a laidback lineup, perfect for a Monday evening in the onset of spring.