Live show review by Max Willens published in Village Voice, March 11, 2011

The Stepkids at Mercury Lounge, Thursday, March 10
Better Than: Being dry. Maybe.
“I couldn’t believe it, bro!
“My mouth was hanging open the whole time!”

Down in the basement dressing rooms of Mercury Lounge, a childhood friend of Connecticut band the Stepkids is trying to articulate his feelings about his pals’ colorful performance. Like most of the audience, he was unprepared for the light show, the lean and deft psychedelic soul, the all-white outfits, and the graceful leaps from one decade’s sound to another. He was not alone.

The Stepkids have only been together for about a year, and their first release, a limited-edition 12-inch on Stones Throw, isn’t due out for another few weeks. Plus they don’t play a ton of gigs around here. So when their set began last night at 10 — before the smooth, veteran band Tahiti 80 turned in a smooth, veteran set — almost all of the cheers came from fellow Connecticut natives. But the Stepkids have also known one another for close to 15 years, making music professionally for a good chunk of that time, so they sounded like self-assured r&b vets. Guitarist Jeff Gitelman (who’s toured extensively with Alicia Keys) can move from jazzy runs to arty swipes to blues-y swings in the space of a solo; bassist Dan Edinburg is flexible, sometimes guiding songs, sometimes scrambling up the sides of them. And all three core members (their keyboardist is just along for the tour) can and do sing, each grabbing verses on one another’s songs, sometimes coming in to harmonize together.

The songs themselves hearkened back to a time (’69-’74?) when soul music was expanding in a million different directions, with mellow psych echoes and alarming electric pianos playing off economical riffs, while simple grooves were blindsided by stamping choruses and chilly organ chords wafted past cooed harmonies. This was all a bit much for the audience at the onset, most of us wet, sober, and (possibly) distracted by the band’s crazy, live-mixed light show. But 40 minutes later, as the band pushed their closer, “Cup Half Full,” into a charging kind of funk, they had the better part of the audience clapping along with them. Once they start playing to crowds that are familiar with their material, there’s no telling how long a song like “La La” could get, or how much license they might allow themselves to take.

Critical Bias: Getting rained on makes me cranky.

Random Notebook Dump: “Legend in My Own Mind” sounds just as good when sung by women!

Set List

“Brain Ninja”
“Suburban Dream”
“Shadows on Behalf”
“Legend In My Own Mind”
“Santos and Ken”
“La La”
“Sweet Salvation”
“Cup Half Full”