Valentine’s Day, like the rest of the past week, was horrid and frigid—objectively speaking, of course. In these hostile conditions, the trek over to Washington Street might have seemed like a labor straight from Norse epic poetry. That being said, for anyone up to the journey (or anyone with the Ride’s number in hir phone), the reward waiting for them at Art House was more than worthwhile. They were in for a cozy night that blended folk, blues, and rock, thanks to the presence of the deeply personable and curiously enigmatic music of Juan Wauters.
At around 9 p.m., Wauters and his team arrived, shivering from the long snow-caked drive and looking for people to help carry equipment. I had a chance to talk to him a little bit before the show, as he sprawled out on the couch and gratefully sipped tea.
Wauters is a native of Uruguay who moved to Queens when he was 17. His arrival in New York coincided with his foray into the world of music.
“I’d played but I never wrote a song or played in a band, just goofed around with friends a little, and my friend’s mom would show us our first chords,” Wauters said. “I pretty much picked everything up when I moved here and I had time to spend with the guitar.”
His first foray into performance was with a group named Pow-Pow that he formed with some Ecuadorian friends. Wauters then progressed to a new outfit, The Beets, which released three albums over the course of three years. However, Wauters began to yearn for solo work, performing some of his own material during the Beets’ shows. At the end of 2013, The Beets disbanded, and in 2014, Wauters’ desire for creative freedom culminated in his first solo album: N.A.P. North American Poetry.
“Playing under my name has been way more challenging, because I’m always trying to find a way to represent myself the best,” Wauters said. “My mood changes and my music changes, so I want to work around that. It’s an evolving process that’ll hopefully last forever, and that’s the job of someone who wants to express themselves.”
Wesleyan was the second stop on his two-month tour, which is slated to take him through Virginia, Tennessee, and even Mexico City, after which he will return to the States for an appearance at Austin’s South by Southwest. During these performances, Wauters doesn’t play alone, but he doesn’t exactly have a set band either. That night, he was playing with his friend Matthew Urango, nicknamed Cola Boy. But, as Wauters revealed, the duo was in fact intended to be a trio.
“We had planned this tour to be piano, bass, and drums, but the drummer couldn’t make it today, so we’re just going to do keyboard and bass, and I’m going to see if Matt can learn a song on the guitar at the end,” Wauters said.
Despite the last-minute change, Wauters’ setup fed into his aesthetic.
“One thing I learned from playing in a group is that I don’t like my music to have a specific sound,” said Wauters. “I like it to have an evolving sound. How we play today won’t be the same as how we played yesterday.”
The show began at around 10:30 p.m. with a performance by Rachel Connor’s Picture Show, a group consisting of the talents of Justine Mitchell ’15, Lauren Burke ’16, Nicole Roman-Johnston ’16, Caroline Mead ’15, Theo Sullivan ’16, and Angus Macdonald ’16. The group played a set that incorporated guitar and cello, with some smooth-as-silk vocal harmonies, combined to create a somber mix of folk and blues.
When it was Wauters’ turn to step in front of the crowd, he did so without any real pomp or glamour. He just walked up to the microphone, greeted everyone with a shy hello, and then dove straight into his first song.
Wauters’ music relies on some simple guitar riffs and combines them with a drifting voice. This is infused with a child-like curiosity that gives his songs a sense of airy progression. At the same time, there’s a sense of lonely contemplation floating about his lyrics. His song “Lost in Soup” muses, “Everything that you do is new/what you do is just for you/once you’ve died all you’ve done goes with you.” His songs are short—very short—but when one ended, he just kept strumming his guitar and allowed himself to drift into the next beat.
Some of his songs burst with a playful energy. His song “Sanity Or Not” has the crackling charge of a Ramones era pop-punk tune, which, combined with the on-cue flickering of a tungsten light, gave the show a moment of crazed euphoria. When Wauters switched to keyboard and brought Cola Boy in for the bass, his songs took up a fast pace that seemed to incorporate a mellow translation of early rockabilly.
After about half an hour, Wauters had already played through his songs, so he modestly offered to replay some of the material he’d already done, an offer that the audience was more than happy to accept. Before he continued, however, he announced that it was Cola Boy’s birthday, which evoked a verse of “Happy Birthday To You” from the crowd as Cola Boy bowed bashfully. This was a moment that managed to embody the aura of the entire night. Whether it was his plain-white sweater and mellow grin, or the way he’d slowly sway with his music and jump on an amp during a burst of energy, there was just something endearing about Wauters’ performance.
When the show ended, Wauters led himself out on a final, darkly funny warning: “Happy Valentine’s Day! Remember, don’t fall in love just because it’s Valentine’s Day!”
And with that, the audience slowly filed back out into the cold.