Gang of Youths performs with all the quirky charisma its name implies. Bathed in pastel pink and green lighting and crowded onstage at Bottom of the Hill last Wednesday night, the five-piece Australian band disregarded the constraints of the tiny space and let personalities run on high.
The band’s brand of pop-rock music is marked by its compelling danceability — the classic, Nirvana-esque grunge of heavy electric guitar is pinned down by a prominent drumline, distinctly brighter in the absence of the 1990s fuzz of constant cymbals, and mellowed by easy vocals that miss the gritty, pronounced strain of Kurt Cobain. The culminating sonic makeup is just reminiscent enough of the ‘90s to draw out pleasant nostalgia without subverting the band’s relevance to the current pop scene.
And the performance of that music was exuberant and loud, unapologetic in its rough noisiness. The happiness present in the dancing paired with the guitar chords was inescapable.
If all the group had to offer was a niche sound and freewheeling performance, they’d have a great band. But Gang of Youths went beyond that — some of the band members’ best qualities were demonstrated in the banter later in the show. Between smiles and jokes, there was an intimate discussion.
At one point, lead singer David Le’aupepe stood still in the front of the mic — a sharp change from his previous relentless motion — and told the hushed audience about a woman he had loved amid her diagnosis with cancer.
“When you’re dealing with love and mortality as a 20-year-old kid like I was, you learn how to empathize with someone and to live with someone in that condition,” he said of the story which inspired the sensitive narrative in the band’s freshman album The Positions. “I’m always grateful for those moments because it taught me how to love someone.”
The song resulting from that sentiment is “Knuckles White Dry” — a quieter tune compared to the jubilant rock tracks surrounding it on the album — which Le’aupepe broke down even more intimately live, stripping the instrumentation away to leave only his voice and a sparse guitar line.
His feelings of gratitude translate to compelling ballad lyrics, words that, sung live, demonstrated almost naive strength and stoicism: “Call off your dogs, we’ll surrender no part of our love to the sun / The skin or the lungs / Not today / Nor tomorrow.”
But life isn’t always so idyllic, and Le’aupepe conceded to the crowd that eventually the relationship had ended. As his rendition of the song closed, tears welled in his eyes, and he commented roughly to himself, “Toughen up, princess.”
The trend of prioritizing dialogue unafraid to expose the emotion behind the night’s setlist continued throughout the performance. In minutes-long stints of honesty, Le’aupepe discussed themes of fear, purpose, love, loss and self-worth.
“I had this recurring dream: I had a wife and kid living in my dream house, which is strange because I don’t believe in private property. Bourgeois fucking dream. But it was about living a life I didn’t feel like I deserved,” Le’aupepe began, attempting to tuck his mess of long springy hair behind his ear. “I take it as my conscious telling me not to take the transient and ephemeral beauty of my life for granted. So all that’s to say don’t waste your fucking life.”
It’s a surprisingly positive takeaway from a dream bogged down by such disheartening qualms, which is really where the band succeeded — Le’aupepe and his bandmates didn’t incur pity from the audience, but equally so, they didn’t shy away from the darker inspirations behind their music, which is easy to do when the songs are catchy enough to stand seemingly well without explanation.
At the encore of the show — which Le’aupepe bluntly announced was happening, rather than leaving the stage in the usual fashion only to traipse back on moments later — the band returned to the joy and spontaneity of its opening, leaving the explanations behind. The band members launched into “Magnolia” and “Vital Signs,” which Le’aupepe sung with sexy, hip-swinging confidence to rousing cheers that simultaneously acknowledged the happiness and the sadness of Gang of Youths.