The Beths take the stage with such a captivating presence that the venue, audience, and the towering fish head they perform alongside fade into obsolescence. The Beths are all consuming–guitar riffs meld with layered harmines, pushing the rest of the world behind the speakers. Hailing from New Zealand, they have a humble charm that draws the audience in. Such casualness is shocking for a band that just played CBS Mornings’ “Saturday Sessions,” but their laid-back approach conjures a welcome level of intimacy.
Starting out as jazz studies classmates at the University of Auckland, Elizabeth Stokes (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Jonathan Pearce (lead guitar, vocals), Benjamin Sinclair (bass, vocals), and Ivan Luketina-Johnston (drums, succeeded by Tristan Deck in 2018) melded their technical skills with pop-punk nostalgia to birth a sound that was nebulous yet distinct. The Beths’ unique style caught the attention of many. With the financial support of government-sponsored organizations, the band was able to produce two music videos and fund three tours. From there, they’ve released two successful albums, played alongside indie rock icons, and have experienced a steady incline in popularity over the last nine years.
Now touring their third album, Expert In A Dying Field, The Beths came to Philly’s Union Transfer with a show that felt like an expertly polished jam-sesh.
A sugary, pop-rock refrain bounces off the walls as the lights dim to total darkness. The Beths walk onto stage and the tune drowns in a sudden wave of commanding drums and guitar. “Future Me Hates Me” greets the eager audience with the perfect representation of The Beths’ style. The sudden switch between calm and chaotic is a signature sound across their discography. Between the band’s love of soft/loud dynamics and incorporating new melodies in each section, their harmonies interacted like a Beach Boys track with distortion.
From there, the band slipped into “Knees Deep,” a single off their latest record. The track’s strong dynamics are boosted by Pearce’s most tasteful guitar solo. His runs are sleek, but his choice to savor dissonant notes make this solo a serious earworm.
“We’re here to play you some songs—that’s the plan,” lead singer and the epitome of cool, Elizabeth Stokes, says in conclusion to the briefest of introductions. And that’s exactly what The Beths do. With minimal interruptions, the band speaks to the audience through the set list. There is nothing to distract from the music. It’s clear that this is not a band that has to rely on gimmicks or aesthetics to engage a crowd. Their style consists of thrift-store-cool t-shirts and denim. Their stage is barren except for the (at least) 12 ft tall fish head sculpture. Nothing separated the band from the music and the music from the audience.
In the moments when the band does decide to say a few words, it’s nothing like rockstars addressing their devoted fans. Instead, it feels like a group of eccentric and interesting friends introducing themselves to me at a basement show. Despite the undeniable connection between stage and pit, there is a distinct divide between performer and spectator. There are some concerts where the crowd is part of the band; they’re screaming back the words to every song like it’s their own, private, grand finale. But this audience is so enthralled that they were almost subdued. They are a congregation gently singing their hymns to themselves.
“Silence is Golden” is punchy, vibrant, and features one of the band’s signature, unexpected climaxes. Pearce shreds away on the guitar with no warning only to practically interrupt himself (and the rest of the instruments) so that Stokes’ voice can carry us, acapella, through the end of the song. From there, they glide into the gentle, repetitive plucking of their latest album’s titular track, “Expert In A Dying Field.” This song seems to be built around Stokes’ subtle voice and a devilishly-catchy riff. The guitar’s floaty melody followed her while standing out against the soft production. The well-placed falsetto notes, as short as they were, were charming and memorable.
A shift from such a powerful song to a more mellowed out single should be jarring, but the natural ebb and flow the band contains within each track is carried over the entire setlist. The Beths ride through the night without any friction. Each song bleeds into the next like complementary pigments in a watercolor painting.The explosions are unpredictable, but the band guides us through the songs with such confidence that the powerful breakaways never felt out of place–it was like drifting through shifting currents.
The Beths feel like something sweeter than your typical indie rock effort. It’s the little things that make this Kiwi group so endearing: their sincere grace, attention to detail, and ear for quality. They have songs fit for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 and more introspective tracks you’d only hear driving home at night.
Closing out the show, The Beths transition into the energizing “Little Death.” Complimenting the interwoven layers of drums, base, guitar, and backing vocals, Stokes belts the agonizing lyrics, “My lungs they catch on every breath / My heart beats harder at the cage / Inside my chest / I die, I die a little death.” It is a tack that encapsulates all their strengths in one culminating moment. And with that, The Beths wave a few casual goodbyes and meander off stage.
Review by Helaina Parejo with contributions from Tyler DiCarlo