Los Angeles-based indie-pop quartet Smallpools kicked off of their first headlining tour last night on a different sun-drenched coast. Fort Lauderdale’s Culture Room played host to the beginning of the 19-date American Love tour, which will see the four-piece play and promote their debut LP, LOVETAP!
Along for the ride were a pair of up and comers who also call L.A. home, Machineheart and Phoebe Ryan.
Led by their slender and emotive lead vocalist, Stevie Scott, Machineheart churned out sweetly tuned pop-rock with a raw edge provided by a trio of guitars. Their best performance had Scott belting out a series of lines that eventually found her with her back on the floor, while one of the guitarists shredded overhead.
The relatively new band (formed in 2014) were adept at dreamy mood pieces as we as ringing, reverb heavy numb ers. The clever guitar and pedal combos performed elastic duets with Scott’s voice, reminiscent of early Gwen Stefani but more mature, instead of drowning her out, which they easily could have done. Near the end of their set, they teased an eerie cover of Britney Spear’s “…Baby One More Time,” launching into their Spotify hit, “Circles.”
It was a shame they didn’t do both and go through with the Spears song because the crowd was amped for an unironic sing-along. Still, “Circles,” off of their recently released In Your Dreams EP, is the type of radio-friendly pop-punk that bands of the '90s so readily excelled at. It was a fine replacement.
Next up was Pheobe Ryan, a tiny powerhouse of a singer. Made almost entirely of smiles, Ryan recently received some very public love from a very public figure: Taylor Swift. The pop megastar recently posted a list of “awesome” songs on her Twitter. Second on the hand-written list was Ryan’s “Mine.” Of the honor Ryan told the crowd, “T. Swift, it’s blowing my mind. One day we’re going to make out.”
Speaking of kissing, that's just one of Ryan’s favorite things to do and sing about, as on “Homie.” She shared two unreleased tracks that also detailed preferred activities, “Boys & Poison” and “Chronic.” Ryan was as expressive with her body language as she is straightforward with her lyrics. Her matching Sailor Pluto green hair and mic chord sailed back and forth as this small package delivered some big hooks.
Two of her cooler numbers were “We Won’t,” a track she wrote with Jaymes Young, but with its electro-pop groove could’ve been a collaboration with James Blake and a slow jam that brought its own disco prom lights. Perhaps her best received song was the R. Kelly / Miguel mash-up cover, “Ignition / Do You…” With Ryan softly singing the refrain, “Do you like drugs? Well me too,” it comes off as an anthem for a bunch of teenage ravers with too many flowers in their hair and too many drugs in their system to be taken seriously; but the diminutive diva manages to get away with it thanks to her charm.
Marching in triumphantly to classical music, Smallpools frontman and lead singer Sean Scanlon waved around a drumstick like a conductor’s baton, working the crowd into a frenzy. After jumping off of an equipment box, the evening’s headliners wasted no time blasting through a trio of punchy songs, including “Over & Over” and “American Love,” the latter featuring flashing red, white, and blue lasers that would’ve been at home on the set of a Star Wars film during a battle between Jedi and Sith.
Scanlon took several breaks between songs to speak to the crowd, something the intimate, close-quarters nature of Culture Room allows artists to do. He related the story behind “Karaoke” and how it came from the band’s love of singing The Cure at, where else, karaoke. Smallpools performed a different version than the one on their full-length, dampening the explosiveness and emphasizing a bit more the heart and warmth of the song. “Karaoke” also saw Scanlon’s second costume change of the night, clad in a black jacket with feathered shoulder pads.
Smallpools had the perfect follow-up just a few minutes later by returning to their karaoke roots with a “campfire” cover version of Bill Withers' “Lean On Me” that employed acoustic guitars and a painters bucket serving as a makeshift drum. It was a nice wrinkle to depart from their synth-heavy, dance-rock sound. Before playing the title song of the new record, Scanlon made two requests, both of which made sense when put together. One was to put all technology away, and the other was, “If I jump, you jump.” It made for a more immersive experience, something this band seems to be big on, especially when Scanlon urged the room to “just be in the moment.”
Curiously, Scanlon sometimes got a little too wrapped in the moment himself, serenading the crowd but then having to rush back to his keyboards for the next set of notes. It felt like if he wasn’t obliged to do so, he could really let loose. There’s a part of him that’s holding back.
The last time Smallpools were in Fort Lauderdale, they opened for Neon Trees. Scanlon has some of the same mannerisms as Tyler Glenn, but much more reserved. He could very well be on the verge of the flamboyant dancing Smallpools so desperately deserves. At the very least, Scanlon isn’t a shy storyteller, explaining the connection between the song “Killer Whales” and how it was written after an internet search revealed that they were often kept in “small pools.” It all came full circle when the band released and dumped two giant inflatable killer whales for the crowd to knock about during the song.
By the time the band concluded with their encore of “No Story Time,” “Dreaming,” and an audience photo holding their ever-faithful greyhound statue (“It’s shiny and metal now; we’ve upgraded!”), Smallpools made damn sure this was the personal type of show old fans and new fans would be talking about and solid start to a promising tour.