Five years of weird

The Sockets Records showcase at the Black Cat last Friday wasn’t like attending one concert: it was like attending five. Five separate, exceedingly diverse concerts.

The showcase sidestepped the boundaries of genre and classification, and instead highlighted five years of what Sockets’ founder Sean Peoples appropriately calls “experimental pop.”

“There’s got to be some side of it where it’s weird and you haven’t heard it before, but there’s got to be another side of it too that people can hold on to, that people can love, can recognize,” he said in an interview.

Peoples began Sockets Records as a sort of passionate hobby in December 2004, during “a nostalgic time,” he said, when many D.C.-based bands were breaking up and the local music scene was slowing down.

“I really wanted to document what was going on in D.C.,” Peoples said. “Some of my friends were doing some weird stuff, and I wanted to document it.” So Peoples began personally producing CD-Rs of his friends’ experimental music. As time went on, his label began making waves in D.C.’s underground music scene. After a “shot in the dark” e-mail to the Black Cat concert booker, Peoples had his showcase scheduled on the venue’s mainstage.

The show, which attracted approximately 700 people, Peoples said, was a great way to “let [people] know that there’s some really cool stuff happening in D.C.”

“I want to help foster [an] environment in D.C. that is friendly to people making music, but also allows them to keep doing it,” Peoples said. “I want to try and make these bands feel like they’re legitimate and grow together.”

Of the five bands participating, the first 30-minute set surely met Peoples’ qualification of “weird” – or at least camped a couple miles south of normal. Christina E, the lead singer of Big Gold Belt, a two-person band experimenting with an electronic and repetitive sound, sported hoop earrings, a mini-skirt and stilettos. A projector on stage flashed a series of distorted, colorful photographs, contributing to the scene’s otherworldly feel. The crowd, already fairly large as early as 9:30 p.m., seemed transfixed by the band’s mesh of electronic undertones and the scratchy voice of the lead singer.

The next band shifted gears entirely. The four members of Buildings walked out in khakis and button-up shirts, bubbling with anticipation to start their set. The distinct sound of the purely instrumental group received a lively response from the crowd, and also featured a heavily artistic and thought-provoking slideshow of colors and images. Third up was Imperial China, introducing a contemporary, more indie sound. A sort of experimental rock, the group’s sound blended coarse vocals, electronica, drums, and keyboard to bring the crowd’s energy to a new level for the evening.

Hume, the next group to perform, began its set well into the night, bringing a more folksy sound into the mix. The vocals, very soft and lyrical, were somewhat overpowered by the louder instruments, though where the microphone failed to enhance the volume, loyal fans were more than willing to contribute.

As midnight passed and some members of the crowd began peeking at their watches, the final act, the Cornel West Theory, took the stage; any thoughts of early departures evaporated. The group, which dedicated its set to those harmed in the Haiti catastrophe, had the crowd entranced by its dynamic, animated performance. They seemed unafraid, jumping from one corner of the stage to another, making eye contact with anyone in range, and extending an arm into the crowd at every opportunity. Peoples, who met the band’s members while in college at American University, said that many categorize them as hip-hop or rap, but “they’re a lot more than just hip-hop.” Not only does the band combine several types of music, but the Cornel West Theory’s lyrics are provocative, presenting many layers of political, social and even religious commentary, Peoples said.

Each band made a shout-out to Peoples before leaving the stage. A member of Buildings said, “This is your night, Sean.” The night, it seemed, did belong to Peoples; it was a sort of testament to how far Sockets Records has come.

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