Noah Gundersen, Phoebe Bridgers make magic at El Rey

Noah Gundersen El Rey

Noah Gundersen and Phoebe Bridgers swept the El Rey Theatre off its feet on Wednesday night.

It’s an odd feeling to be yanked out of your reality so suddenly and so fully, but that’s exactly what happened to me at the El Rey on a Wednesday night. In the middle of an admittedly difficult week, I arrived at the venue with the hardened shell of a stressful few days around me. But after the first verse Phoebe Bridgers’ hauntingly gorgeous “Smoke Signals” off her debut record, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, my tough veneer began to crack and a deep calm washed over me. Her sweetly warbled voice poured out over the audience as silvery lights danced across the faces of the crowd. In an instant, my emotional armor had been cracked.

Bridgers, a Los Angeles native, played the majority of her new album, which has a confident elegance. It’s the kind of elegance that’s surprising when you learn she was born in 1994, but Bridgers’ ethereal, yet grounded vocals make her sound wise beyond her years, especially in the irreverent, heartachingly beautiful “Demi Moore.”

Phoebe Bridgers

Soon, the night’s headliner, Noah Gundersen, took the stage. With his leather jacket and long dark hair obscuring his face, I expected something moody and intense, but with the first opening notes of “AFTER ALL (EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME)” I realized I was about to hear something far more nuanced and interesting than that. Gundersen’s epic, winding vocals wove effortlessly between soaring orchestral verses and classic rock chorus. Moving into his very Gotye-vibed track, “THE SOUND,” Gundersen took the energy in the room to a new level. The crowd, made up of mostly Gen Xers who seemed averse to dancing, bobbed their heads solemnly until the raucous chorus hit.

It makes sense that Gundersen hails from Washington. He’s not Kurt Cobain, but his deep well of ferocity and vocal emotion belies a darkness that feels downright Pacific Northwestern-y. Growing up strictly religious, he eventually ventured into the rock scene of Seattle at 18, forming his first band, Beneath Oceans. And he wasn’t the only one of his five siblings to go into music — his sister Abby joined him onstage for the set, playing keyboards, violin and providing backing vocals.

Gundersen spent the majority of the show almost unwaveringly still until the middle of “COCAINE, SEX & ALCOHOL,” during which he ripped off his jacket and proceeded to climb the scaffolding on the side of stage. It was a moment that clashed with the quietly magnetic intensity of the earlier part of the set, but the crowd went wild for it, whipping out their iPhones to snap pictures.

The set ricocheted between Gundersen’s many musical styles, all encapsulated in his eclectic and interesting 2017 release, WHITE NOISE. From the synthy “HEAVY METALS” to the very Ryan Adams-y “BAD DESIRE,” he managed to keep the crowd engaged in reverent awe, but the absolute high point came when he unexpectedly spoke to the crowd about politics. Towards the end of the set, Gundersen spoke to the hushed audience about what it’s like to grow up in a small, small-minded town. He spent a few minutes hypothesizing poetically about what might make people vote for Trump before introducing the twangy, Americana-influenced track “FEAR & LOATHING.”

He finished the set with an encore of “Cigarettes,” a earnest, pensive harmonica track with stunning harmonies. Overall, a gorgeous mid-week show from two incredibly talented, multi-faceted musicians.

If you hope to catch Phoebe Bridgers in LA, don’t fear — she’s playing a hometown album-release show next month at the newly-opened Lodge Room.

Words by Stephanie Varela / Photos by Danielle Gornbein (full gallery below)