Last Friday, Earth House received an injection of soul, serving as the third stopping point for the tour of the “Adventure Soul” duo Milo & Otis. Celebrating their second album release, the two incorporated groovy bass and transcendental electronics to set the entire audience on a musical journey, aided immensely by the talent of the opening acts.
As the audience steadily filed in over the course of the night, it was treated to an impressive yet soothingly casual set by two of Wesleyan’s own groups. The first was on-campus duo Hana Elion ’15 and Sam Wheeler ’15. With both on the guitar and Elion on vocals, the duo played cool blues and rock covers of songs such as The Beatles’ “Oh Darling” and Lauryn Hill’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Elion was then joined by Ari Ebstein ’16 and Jay Sharma ’16, the three of whom make up the group Spliffjam. By this time, Earth House was starting to fill up, and the audience’s excitement was growing, so it was a little odd, but definitely unique, when Ebstein decided to do what he called “a social experiment.” He asked the entire audience to sit on the floor as the group played their set, while also inviting anyone to come up and take the microphone while they were playing. Ultimately, no one did, but that might largely be because no one wanted to interrupt the impressive set. Consisting of one long song, the entire piece had an incredibly satisfying improvisational feel, with the three of them starting with a very well-defined sense of structure, then slowly branching out into more free-form work, before finally bringing it all back for the conclusion.
With Spliffjam finishing up, everyone got back on their feet, primarily because they had to make room for the new people flooding in for the main act, Milo & Otis.
This duo hails from Chicago, even though its two members, Owen Hill (Otis) and Jamila Woods (Milo), met while attending Brown University. They offer up a genre that they’ve termed “Adventure Soul.” I had a chance to talk to them before the show, and asked them a bit about their self-defined style.
“I think our music, if you listen to all of our songs, both albums we have out, you can hear a lot of different genres, and you can’t really nail it down to one,” Milo said. “So when we were first starting, I was like, ‘What genre are we?’ And Otis was like, ‘soul,’ and I thought that was true because it’s really about your emotions and the way that music can transport you into a different mental, spiritual, imagination place when you listen to it. That’s the one thing that they have in common across the board.”
“The idea of adventure is that the ambition of the music is always to take you somewhere, it’s not just to make you happy or hype you up, it’s always to take you somewhere… somewhere new, hopefully,” Otis said.
Ultimately, this description felt pretty accurate when watching the two perform, largely because they managed to go past the limits of what just two musicians would usually provide. For most of the show, Milo was singing at the front of the stage (or at the front of their corner, since it was in Earth House, after all) while Otis was at the back, playing the bass and keyboard as well as manning the electronic samples and beats; he was essentially the engine room of the entire performance. The electronic side of the music was actually quite surprising, as it proved integral to the feel of the show. For every song, Otis was delivering a pre-composed rhythm, which also substituted for the drums. Rather than giving the show an artificial feel, however, this added a foundation for the two to work upon. It’s as if the electronic beats offered a consistency, which was then being continually built upon, and even challenged, by the bass and vocal work of the performers.
Another effect of this layered sound is the way it almost amplified their stage presence; the combination of instruments seemed to provide much more than two musicians could usually offer. When I asked Otis, he made it clear that the engineered material is a crucial component of the duo’s rich sound.
“The written-down-on-paper split is that she does the vocals and I do all the music, but it usually deviates, especially in this last album,” Otis said. “Because she was in an a cappella group in college and would arrange a lot of great layers vocally, like on the song run, the chords and vocals are her voice, and I’m just doing the drums and bass and sort of colors…. In the studio we tend to write everything completely together, and I sort of work all the tones, and get all the textures and sounds right, and all the lyrical parts done.”
Near the end of the show, however, the duo made a switch toward a more definitively raw sound. The pre-engineered audio was ditched in favor of a simple bass accompaniment to Milo’s singing. This unplugged version of the song “The Joy” was a nice finale to the entire show. Over the entire night, the audience experienced a paradoxical combination of calm relaxation and the urge to dance along with the funky rhythm, and this merging reached its pleasant peak with the group’s final song.
After “The Joy,” in spite of the audience’s call for an encore, the show was over. Afterward, I saw Milo and Otis just hanging around Earth House, talking to all the audience members about the concert. It was a nice conclusion to the entire mood of the show, excited elation combined with a calm satisfaction, which made the entire night a wonderful experience.