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Paper Void’s upset at Chi Theta Chi

Paper Void played a stunning opening set at Chi Theta Chi. Courtesy of Johan Ismael.

On Saturday night, the Stanford Concert Network hosted two genre-bending bands at Chi Theta Chi for a free house concert. The set opened with relative unknowns Paper Void, an Oakland based funk/fusion/neo-soul outfit with deep Stanford ties. They were followed by BADBADNOTGOOD, an acclaimed Canadian pseudo-jazz trio who have made waves with their instrumental albums and worked extensively with hip-hop and R&B superstars. If music were a competition, this would be a tale of David and Goliath.

The tale of the tape shows a clear imbalance of success. Paper Void opened at Frost last year, while BBNG played at SXSW and the Montreal International Jazz Festival; Paper Void has 750 likes on their Facebook page, BBNG has over 84,000; Paper Void recorded their debut EP “Unfold” and released it free to fans, and BBNG dropped a full-length studio album with legendary Wu-Tang emcee Ghostface Killah. The two are in completely different leagues, and I expected to hear the difference in their performances. But on Saturday night, the underdogs flipped the script and blew the headliners out of the water.

Paper Void played a stunning opening set at Chi Theta Chi. Courtesy of Johan Ismael.
Paper Void played a stunning opening set at Chi Theta Chi. Courtesy of Johan Ismael.

Simply put, Paper Void is a force to be reckoned with. Consisting of vocalists Ella Cooley and Hannah Martinson ‘13, keyboardist Nathan Bickert, emcee Alberto Guzmán ‘13, trumpeter Daniel Bereket ‘17, guitarist Gavin Leeper ‘13, bassist Evan Gitterman ‘14 and drummer Alex Favaro ‘12, they’re a young group of thoughtful and sophisticated musicians with eyes and ears set on greatness. Their sound is something like Hiatus Kaiyote meets J Dilla meets Snarky Puppy (just a few of my favorite things). In other words, they combine tasty syncopation, synths and singing with classic hip-hop beats and broken swing, then tie it all together with intelligent improvisation and undeniable groove.

Cooley and Martinson’s vocal harmonies rarely missed the mark, and Guzman’s raps delivered fresh energy and flavor. The band’s instrumental solos were hip but not overly flashy, and their coordination of broken and off-beat rhythms was masterful. Led by Favaro’s drumming, the band held laid-back grooves that hit just behind the beat (the ultimate rhythmic expression of cool), before suddenly bursting out for climactic moments of all-out energy. Bickert was especially impressive on the keys, using an arsenal of dirty synths to flavor his solos.

Paper Void weaved their way through a set of originals and covers, including a tongue-in-cheek variation on the crowd favorite “Leave (Get Out)” by 2004’s teen pop wonder JoJo, a riff on “Fall in Love” by hip-hop collective Slum Village and a cover of James Blake’s dubsteppy ambient hit “Retrograde.” At one point, the vocals dropped out and the band went into a faithful rendition of Dilla’s “Time: The Donut of the Heart,” matching the original computerized ritards to a tee — no easy feat for a live band.

As Paper Void packed up its set, the crowd swelled in anticipation of BADBADNOTGOOD’s headlining performance. BBNG’s sound is defined by its uncommon application of traditional jazz instrumentation to hip-hop standards and instrumental groove-oriented originals. They’re gifted crowd-pleasers, skilled at engaging the audience with their energy and stage presence. Nevertheless, their music comes off as self-indulgent, unrefined and a bit immature.

These qualities are easily overlooked in a loud, crowded room with booming acoustics, and all things considered, might be irrelevant to the band’s function at a house party. But all it takes is a step back from the hype and energy to expose the music as uncoordinated and unserious. The bass was rhythmically inconsistent and far too loud, overpowering the somewhat monotonous drums, and the keys were aggressively dissonant and unrestrained. There was energy, but it didn’t feel controlled. The combined effect was frenzied and careless.

In the end I felt short-changed by BBNG, but I’m delighted to have discovered Paper Void. I strongly believe — and genuinely hope — that they’ll blow up soon. They deserve to be heard.

Contact Benjamin Sorensen at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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