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Think Bedroom Pop, except not in your bedroom: Rex Orange County at The Anthem

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As part of The Pony Tour, Rex Orange County performed at The Anthem, located in the Wharf area of Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. On Oct. 25, 2019, he released “Pony,” an album consistent with the poetic balladry of Orange County’s two prior albums except this time with cleaner qualities, such as perfected, orchestrated instrumentals. The tone of “Pony,” and of his live show, is arguably more optimistic than past works, with upbeat bangers like single “10/10” and groovy track “Laser Lights.”

The genre of “Bedroom Pop,” which Rex Orange County’s discography largely falls into, is music that could entirely be recorded or produced in a bedroom with dreamy energy and hypnotizing reverb. His sound includes small, childish, almost familiar playful drum beats in conversation with grand piano and brass parts that have more notable jazz influences. Combined with his poetic, reflective lyrics, Rex Orange County creates music that is comforting for more introverted, human moments, the being-awake-at two-a.m. alone type of moment. That being said, to scale that small, introverted feeling to the unfathomably public scale of a massive General Admission show is bound to be difficult.

The layout of The Anthem is primarily a General Admission floor with some small rows in box type areas looking down from floors above; essentially, it’s a massive hall. For Orange County’s show, the venue was completely sold out and the massive floor became an ocean of mostly high school through college-aged people. General Admission intends to build intimacy between the audience and the performer. But, at The Anthem, the scale of the venue was almost uncomfortably large for a General Admission floor. With the venue operating at full capacity, intimacy with Rex Orange County became near impossible as you’re too compressed or, if you’re shorter, suffocated, against the strangers next to you. I had previously heard positive reviews of The Anthem, but the estranged dynamic between the audience size and performer impacted the overall genuineness of the show. 

At his live show, Rex Orange County, an introvert, decently safe to assume,  seemed to grapple with the expectation to somehow fill an entire hall with his personable yet awkward energy. For the majority of the show, Orange County seemed the most comfortable when performing songs. The dialogue that took place between songs seemed jittery and rehearsed. Towards the closing songs on the setlist, Rex Orange County seemed more comfortable and genuine in moments in between songs, asking the audience to put away their phones in favor of a moment to be shared only by the room. The overall strength in Orange County’s performance was that the music really did speak for itself.

Understanding that strength, a portion of Orange County’s show was dedicated to songs he performed without his accompanying live band. During the last, most intimate verse of “Pluto Projector,” a mildly transparent veil was breathed down as a curtain behind the singer and was backlit by the warm fuschia lighting on stage.

Orange County proceeded to play five songs, one being a cover of Alicia Keys’ “No One,” with only his own instrument as accompaniment. Even on his own, the songs sounded almost exactly like the recorded, mixed, and produced tracks that flow through the headphones, speakers, or car stereos of his fans with quiet volume on late nights, except on the booming scale of a room filled with hundreds of standing fans.

Image courtesy of Alé Terrero.

This “solo” portion of his live show paid tribute to the meaning of Bedroom Pop as well as a solid attempt at being as personal to his audience as he could possibly be. Other somewhat unorthodox elements of his live show included his entry on stage. Rex Orange County did not have an opening act go on before he played his set. In fact, the last track of the preliminary music playing inside the venue was Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road,” which is considerably less than thematic or sensible as far as mood-setting for this headliner goes. It is possible that the absence of an opening act was a creative choice by Orange County or maybe had something more to do with the logistics of the entire show and tour. Regardless, all eyes were fully on Orange County the second the lights went up and he sauntered on stage.

Despite the many less-than-conventional aspects and dynamics of the “Pony” live show, the music Rex Orange County performed really held its own. There’s a trend of edited audio clips online that take an eerie or lullaby sounding song and change the sound of the audio to sound as if it’s being played in “8D,” or an empty arena, or in a room next door, etc. These audio edits have a kind of echoey sound, the bass and speaker booming but in a hollow way that feels as if the sound is suspended in the air a second longer than it physically should. There is something both incredibly grand and isolating here, and that’s what the music of the show felt like.

Somehow, in the fire hazard of hundreds of standing people, every member of the audience was experiencing the music for themselves. This is beautiful and dissolves the soul like a cough drop in the listener’s chest. A devoted listener to any band, but especially Rex Orange County, can feel how much that song, those noises, have seeped into the cracks and quiet moments of one’s life. Every memory floods back at once, and nothing else seems to matter.

Overall, Rex Orange County as a live show act had a difficult time scaling upwards to accommodate the astronomical numbers of people he touches with his music. Given smaller, radio station or intimate studio type performance parameters, like Tiny Desk Concert or Paste Studios NYC, Rex Orange County’s performance would truly thrive. Still, the musical talent of him and his band is truly phenomenal and worth witnessing and feeling live.

Feature Image: Courtesy of Carly Dacanay ’23.

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Think Bedroom Pop, except not in your bedroom: Rex Orange County at The Anthem