With chaotic garage rock, the Orwells are thoroughly entertaining at U Street Music Hall


The Orwells (Jory Lee Cordy)
March 9

Saturday night was either typical or atypical for the Orwells.

Their thoroughly entertaining set at U Street Music Hall featured the audience regularly parading across the stage, thinly veiled insults directed at the club’s monitors and stage crew, long-blond-haired singer Mario Cuomo veering between beatific self-reflection and wild-eyed psychosis, and a rickety, splattery set of modern garage-rock songs that sounded like the equivalent of a couple of inches of beer glistening on a barroom floor.

In a word: fantastic.

The suburban Chicago quintet — average age hovering right around 20 — is careening across the United States on a tour that is, by all reports, only building on the momentum the Orwells gained from a string of British dates in February and a memorable appearance on David Letterman’s show in January.

Opening with “Other Voices,” the title track of its latest EP, the group had the near-capacity crowd roiling from the opening chord, a development that seemed to put the club’s staff a bit on edge.

“They’re going to stop the show if you keep touching me,” Cuomo told the crowd after a crew member conferred with him on stage. To which he naturally concluded, “So touch me all you want!”

But the fans were far more interested in singing along to songs like “Dirty Sheets” and “In My Bed” and jumping up on stage to sing along than any actual violence.

Guitarist Matt O’Keefe kept the set on track (though his instrument was often difficult to detect in a muddy mix), slashing at a chugging version of “Halloween All Year” that they wrapped up with a few choruses of “Build Me Up Buttercup,” because, well, why not?

And while the Orwells obviously sprang from a broad set of guitar-based bands — there were clear whiffs of the Sonics, the Replacements, Guided By Voices and Black Lips wafting across the room — their success is about being themselves and taking their place at the end of that lineage. And with Cuomo milking his substantial charisma for all it was worth, they did just that, coming across as bratty, cocky and indifferent — and being all the more lovable for it.

Cuomo claimed that Saturday’s U Street gathering was “a better crowd than Philly, a better crowd than New York, a better crowd than London,” and watching the stage fill up with fans during an encore of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” it was easy to believe.

And perhaps even more so when the house lights had come up and the crowd broke into chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” because that’s what you do when it’s 10 o’clock on Saturday night and your favorite band just left the stage and the rest of the weekend is only going to disappoint in comparison.

Foster is a freelance writer.

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