It was quite a sight—a crowd of Canadians and Michiganders that stretched across a downtown block, caked in the snow of two separate years, attempting dance in cramped conditions, shivering and ecstatic, all on account of two individuals: Tyler Duncan, the glitter-glazed Paganini of the Irish pipes, and Michelle Chamuel, the returning hero of Ann Arbor music.
The first time I saw these two musicians, they were in a seven-piece band called My Dear Disco, a sensational paragon of Michigan music that performed an amalgamate and widely-accessible style of music which they dubbed “DanceThink,” a newfangled genre that strove to engage both the bodies and minds of listeners. MDD pursued this goal by combining virtuosic blastacular dance-rock anthems with lyrical portraits of self-conscious, dysfunctional individuals, people “standing on the corner between distant and sincere.” It was a peculiar fusion of euphoria and inhibition, but it was difficult to detect this quality when I saw the band the first couple of times, because they were such a terrific multicolored extravaganza live. The nervy anxiety that was as integral to their art as the carefree joy only really became evident when I actually sat down and listened to their DanceThink LP. Dance, and then think.
Four years after their inception, the name of the group was changed to Ella Riot, reportedly because they didn’t want people to think they were a disco group. A few months later, they abruptly announced that they were going on “indefinite hiatus.” A couple of years after this void-creating loss, the frontwoman of the group, Michelle, tried out for The Voice and subsequently made it to second place. Michelle has a tendency to surprise people—My Dear Disco was originally an instrumental group called Toolbox, until Michelle, a music production student from Amherst, ended up working with guitarist Robert Lester on a recording project for a University of Michigan class and demonstrated her incredible voice for the first time—and she managed to surprise both her core group of Ella Riot fans and the rest of the TV-watching public, showing herself to be an insightful and empathetic interpreter of other people’s songs, not just her own. That was awesome.
In the time between the hiatus and The Voice, however, she had already released several recordings, including a side project with keyboardist and bagpiper Tyler Duncan, called s/he. In s/he, the conflicting impulses of abandon and introspection—DanceThink—became explicit in both the lyrics and the music. Take the song “In the Dark.” The music itself is by turns aggressive and meditative—it takes a greater amount of effort and imagination to dance to this music, as though s/he are making a conscious effort to draw attention to the words. Meanwhile, the struggle between reserve and impulsiveness is also illustrated lyrically—“I don’t want to be alone / Kept out the way, come on / Don’t want to behave / I step out into the sun / I want to play, come on / I want to be brave.” In the coda of the song, almost all the instrumentation drops out except for a basic foundation of bass and percussion, and a determined chant is repeated over and over—“Courage take us to the sun, we want to face the open.” Soon, a four-on-the-floor beat takes over, making the song significantly easier to dance to, and Michelle yells out “Let them finally see – you are extraordinary.” In “In the Dark” and many other songs on s/he’s self-titled album, people dance and think simultaneously—dancing, the act of putting yourself out on the floor and flaunting your glorious ridiculousness for the world to see, is shown as something that is liberating and healthy for the mind. However, when this album first came out, it seemed as though I would never get to see a crowd dancing to it—it was a one-off studio project, made for headphones, not amps.
This concert was therefore momentous for a couple of reasons. First off, it would be the first time Michelle performed in front of a LIVE audience—that is to say, an audience not entirely comprised of studio-selected autocheer humanoids, as was the case during her time on The Voice—in a good couple of years. Secondly, this would be s/he’s first live performance EVER. Who knew how they would sound or look live, and would dancing or thinking take precedence?
Since I was standing only a few feet away from stage right, I had an ideal view of the musicians, but my perception of the sound quality was distorted by my proximity to the speakers. The percussive blasts of bass sounded suitably buzzy, and the blinking-light melodies of songs like “Here with You” and “Mr Hyde” sounded suitably bright, but whenever the music combined noise with melody, it became difficult to distinguish the two—they melted together in a deafening whir of pixelated static. Still, Tyler’s uilleann pipes and penny-whistle proved consistently capable of cutting through the murky mix like a sine wave dipped in white-hot quicksilver.
It was interesting to hear such massive waves of DanceThink emanating from two people in winter coats on a tiny and cluttered stage, since I was so used to Ella Riot’s stage-filling multitude of sharp-dressed musicians. Most of the instrumental tracks were triggered by Tyler from a laptop, but the two musicians were still able to improvise over the loops; Tyler played various keyboards and wind instruments from a stool, while Michelle occasionally distorted her voice through a synthesizer, or gleefully bashed on a drum and cymbal. At times, it seemed as though the two musicians were hiding within their own lightshow, a mélange of subaquatic purples and blues, letting the music hang in the air, detached from the people who were creating it. At other times, it was one of the most powerful performances I’d ever seen from either of them. Michelle’s style of performing had changed considerably during her time on TV, and it was truly something to see live. She owned her few square feet of stage space, rocking a single mitten like a Michiganian Michael Jackson, strutting around with utter decisiveness and punching the air with pugnacious precision. Her utterly distinctive voice was even more captivating, alternating between wailing fierceness and crooning tranquility. Tyler was comparatively subdued but still spirited, harmonizing with a dry baritenor and headbanging while playing a stratospherically squeedly solo on the electric bagpipes.
The music did indeed change when performed live; it sounded much more danceable than it did on record, and Michelle’s fearless earnestness became downright forceful in a live setting. Although the nuances of the lyrics were occasionally eclipsed by the heavy blurts of electronic rhythm, the choruses—“I WANT TO FEEL ALIVE TONIGHT,” “SOMEHOW WE’VE FOUND THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH,” “YOU ARE EXTRAORDINARY”—gained new power when they were finally shouted out into the open air. Dancing and thinking at the same time felt easier than ever before.
When they brought several members of Ella Riot out on stage for the final number, it reminded me how much I’ve missed seeing these wonderful people make wonderful music. I dearly hope that s/he makes live performance into a habit. When I first saw My Dear Disco perform live, they were reading from sheet-music stands, eyes and feet fixed to the floor. A couple of years later, they were the most electrifying group I’ve ever seen. If s/he mustered this kind of energy for their first-ever live performance, imagine what they could be like in a year or so.