WASHINGTON, May 27, 2014 – DC9 is the kind of bar venue that doesn’t usually lend itself to thematic elements. But paradoxically, a band like Summer Camp is all about themes in their music, at least in a sense.
Fortunately, for both the band and the audience, it didn’t take much work to turn the venue’s second floor into a low budget stage for Summer Camp’s ideas and things they love, all of which were on display during their recent performance here.
The audience at DC9 was soon engulfed with Summer Camp’s brand of shiny synth-pop and a never ending loop of film dance sequences ranging from several scenes in “Footloose” – an understandable favorite, given the brightness of Summer Camp’s sound – to more traditional musical numbers like those from “Singin’ In the Rain.”
It was something of a surprise to see the this stream of dance sequences trotting across the background screen. But by the end of the night, it was quite obvious that the visuals fit precisely with what Summer Camp wanted to do, to the point where it was hard to distance the band from what was appearing on the screen.
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Summer Camp has always seemed like an unabashed ode to the ’80s pop music scene. They wear this on their collective sleeve, which becomes crystal clear once you get into their selection of dance numbers. Not all of them are from the ‘80s, but that decade is still heavily represented, with several pieces from various John Hughes films, highlighting by a period when it was viewed as eminently okay for a celluloid teen comedy/melodrama to randomly break out into elaborate dance sequence.
This tradition ultimately is what sums up Summer Camp’s live performance, in that they would love nothing more than for everyone to just drop what they’re doing along with their relative inhibitions, and dance away into the night without a care in the world. Granted, their sound isn’t quite like a movie soundtrack or as operatic as a Hollywood production number. But the underlying emotion is there all the same.
This is the point of the dance sequence in film that often gets overlooked far too often by fans and detractors of the genre alike. The dance numbers in films take place – or at least this is the general principle – when the overflow of emotion is just too much for the characters to express in dialogue. So instead of arguing or fighting, the characters start to dance, doing so with elaborate intention. The best musicals use those dance interludes to objectively bring out specific character traits inherent in the story.
At first glance, this idea seems like the antithesis to Summer Camp’s sound. What the English duo of Elizabeth Sankey and Jeremy Warmsley have crafted with Summer Camp is an understated sound that would almost seem lost with someone like Kevin Bacon or Gene Kelly flipping out on the silver screen. But what’s really important with Summer Camp’s sound is everything that lies underneath the surface.
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The contradiction of the band lies in their general make up and what they reveal with their music. One of the main themes Summer Camp deals with is broken relationships. This is something that’s never lost on their target audience due to the clarity and expressiveness of Sankey’s voice, which rises poignantly over the layers of Warmsley’s guitar and keyboard.
Summer Camp started off as purely a modernized answer to ‘80s synth-pop. But the ensemble has since transformed into pure pop over time, to the point where it sometimes feels like the best of Blondie’s late ‘70s disco chic era. Granted, this is nothing new in the pop firmament. But the contradiction lies in the fact that Sankey and Warmsley are married. No unrequited love here.
Their personal connection isn’t something they play up during the show, although their closeness on stage is noticeable. But it does add an extra layer to the songs they perform, and it makes their set more effective to point where it’s almost disconcerting.
Everything about their set deals with confrontation. And much as in real life, that confrontation is oftentimes understated except for the subtext, which tends to be emotionally up close, and personal. Of course in a musical, the subtext of the confrontation – whatever that may be – becomes the actual text.
This is why the dance numbers work so well with Summer Camp’s unfiltered pop. These dance number specifically spell out the subtext of their own repertoire. Much in the way the dance visuals reveal the sometimes hidden intensity of emotions, the sweetness of Summer Camp’s pop acts as filter for the inherent sadness of their material.
It all brings an extra depth to Sankey and Warmsley’s songs, allowing them to practically beat the audience over the head with the emotional intensity, washing, as it does, through the emotional lives and history of all who attend one of their shows. And that’s a considerable accomplishment.