It’s a cold and wet night, as the April storm shifts between rain and snow, resulting in a heavy grey slush. Jackets are zipped up tight, and boots poke and plod through soupy puddles. Yet despite the less-than-perfect weather, Central Square is busy and buzzing with excitement. Tonight is the opening night of The Middle East-owned Sonia, a new venue renovated from the ashes of recently closed T. T. The Bear’s Place. With the addition of Sonia, The Middle East has firmly cemented its position as a Boston nightlife powerhouse, now boasting five distinct venues. But Sonia isn’t the only draw of the night, as fans fill the tiny 194-person capacity Upstairs venue in anticipation of Chicago rockers NE-HI.
NE-HI was formed in 2013, making a name for itself in Chicago’s thriving underground scene through powerful and energetic basement shows. The band released its first and self titled album in 2014, which captured the lo-fi aura of their live performances. In February of 2017, NE-HI released its second and most recent album, Offers, featuring a more mature and polished sound without sacrificing the spirit of their first album. Since then, NE-HI has toured with some of rock’s best up-and-coming bands, including Car Seat Headrest and fellow Chicagoans Twin Peaks, expanding their experience far beyond the basement shows of their beginnings.
Opening for NE-HI were local Boston rock bands Cove Sauce and Steep Leans. Cove Sauce began the night with a raw and speedy set, switching players on guitar and bass after several songs to signify the shift from old to new material. Steep Leans went on stage around 10:00pm, soaking the crowd in euphoric energy with songs like slow jam “Columbia,” and walking off to a line of high-fives and fist bumps from the first row. Following Steep Leans, NE-HI briefly appeared on stage for a sound check before disappearing, letting the excitement build until the band hopped back on at 11:00pm.
Once on stage, NE-HI wasted no time warming up the crowd, kicking off their set with a block of songs from Offers beginning with ”Sisters.” From there, NE-HI grooved their way into “Prove,” with a bouncy dance rhythm led by drummer Alex Otake and bass player James Weir. This block of songs fittingly came to an end with the album’s title track, “Offers,” slowing the pace of the show as listeners swayed to reverberating guitars and singer/guitarist Jason Balla’s droning “ohs” and “ahs.”
Jumping back to some of their older material, NE-HI played “Time Wanna” and “You Tell Me,” featuring the seamlessly combined voices of both Balla and and singer/guitarist Mikey Wells on backup. Like with “Prove,” these tracks broke down into full-out jam sessions, with the band rocking and swinging around the stage to the music just as madly, if not more so, than the pumped up crowd.
To end the night, NE-HI pulled out one of their brightest and most upbeat songs, “Stay Young,” the lead single off and final track from Offers. Between Balla’s simple and hooky lyrics, fuzzy riffs, and steady beats, “Stay Young” radiated with a sunny atmosphere, bringing an infectious wave of smiling and head-bobbing over the crowd. When the song was over, NE-HI waved good night and began breaking down their instruments and working their way off stage–––but the crowd wasn’t done with them yet. Even as Otake screwed off his high-hat and packed away his drum sticks, the crowd roared out in unison, “One more song!” And after 30 seconds had gone by and the call for an encore remained strong, Otake shared a look of pride and disbelief with his band mates, then shrugged his shoulders and waved the rest of the band back on stage for one final song.
More than anything else, this genuinely unplanned and graciously given encore perfectly captured the spirit of the band–––a laid back group of guys who continue to charm new fans with their honest and electrifying performances.