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Precocious Indie Popsters Cults Frustrate at the Clift Hotel

A quick piece of advice for the IAMSOUND Sessions promoters who booked the phenom indie pop band Cults last night at the Clift Hotel: it might be wise to schedule what’s called an “opening act” next time your headliner doesn’t come on until 10:30 p.m., even if the show is free. Asking hundreds of fans to wait idly with $10 drinks and thumb their cell phones for 90 minutes on a Sunday night doesn’t do much to engender support for the spotlight band. By the time Cults came on, the crowd was impatient, angsty, still chatty and generally indifferent to what was happening onstage. (#hipsterproblems)

(And the especially unfortunate part of this oversight is that there are hundreds of local bands who would have killed for this kind of stage time and exposure to S.F. music fans in the know and various local tastemakers. Hell, there were street performers outside this Union Square hotel who would have gladly sung show tunes.)

But back to the band in question, and its very brief history. In less than a year, co-founders Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin have gone from making music in their spare time as students at NYU to earning stripes as one of the hottest bands going in 2011. They released a self-titled album on Columbia this year to universal acclaim, and are now hitting the road hard, nabbing influential festival slots and bulking up in number to a five-piece.

But as quickly as word spread about these buzzworthy Manhattanites, word also spread that their live act was lacking. To be fair, the band is still in its incubation period, but its flight from practice studio to the concert halls of America may have been somewhat hasty. But that’s the nature of the beast these days. Strike while the hype is hot.

So here they were, albeit under challenging circumstances. The main problem just seemed to be with the volume balance. Everything seemed to be muted; each instrument’s volume scaled back as if to not step on each other’s toes. Five songs into the set, someone from the audience yelled, “Louder!” and lead singer/temptress Madeline Follin perhaps sarcastically hinted at the problem: “There’s people sleeping upstairs!” A few songs later, they glanced offstage looking for someone’s approval, a few dead rock stars turned in their grave somewhere, and they dialed it up a bit. Tragically polite, these precocious young 20somethings…

Follin went for more of a tenor sound than what we hear on record. She’s still a bit shy about the whole proposition, like a girl pressured into doing karaoke for the first time. A few times she asked the crowd “Are you guys drunk yet?,” desperate for some social lubricant between herself and a somewhat rude crowd.

Fortunately the volume was right for a few of their stronger cuts. “You Know What I Mean” starts with a dreamy ’60s girl-pop swirl (its melody actually comes from a Supremes song) before drums kick in and Follin gets fired up. And when she flexes those pipes, girl’s got that extra something-something that seizes a room — that “It’s my birthday and I’ll throw a fit if I want to” bravado. “Rave On” also allowed Follin to belt out a chorus or three, with Oblivion doing his best impression of The Girl From the Ring while working the keyboard. They tweaked the outro a bit, and sure enough it kinda worked. How do we know? A couple near the front of the stage made out through the entire song (!), a first for Cults, reported Follin.

If you’re seeing them at Bottom of the Hill tonight with San Diego indie bros Writer, tell them to crank it up from the git-go.