Night School and More, Revisited: Neon Indian at Big Night Live

The first show that I properly experienced was Neon Indian’s set at Clockenflap 2015. It was the very first time that I pressed myself right up against the barricades, directly in front of the performers. Psychic Chasms and Era Extraña were foundational records for me, and I was completely in love with the then newly released Vega Intl. Night School. It’s also incredibly rare for artists to tour Asia—let alone Hong Kong—just months after releasing a new album, so that show felt all the more special for it. Alan Palomo, the mind behind Neon Indian, even hopped down after the set to shake hands and take pictures with fans—I have a selfie with him somewhere that I still look at from time to time. It’s a night that is one of the fondest memories of my teenage years, and it set the standard for every single show that I’ve been to since. 

It’s been 4 years since that Sunday night. I’d been looking forward to this show because last time, the band were restricted to a short 45 minute set. I remember wishing that they had been given more time so that I could hear songs from deeper within their discography. While the short and snappy festival set that I experienced in 2015 was squarely focused on Night School—and even though Palomo hasn’t actually released a new album since then—this time around at Big Night Live, Palomo and crew delivered a show that managed to feel both like a display of their greatest hits and a sign of things to come.

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After an impromptu, yet charming and casual opening solo set from Palomo’s keyboard player (the originally scheduled act were unable to make it), the whole band took to the stage. They immediately got down to business, starting off with 3 of the most danceable, 80’s-inflected songs off of Night School: “Dear Skorpio Magazine,” “Annie,” and “The Glitzy Hive.” As expected, the crowd instantly began to move to the incredibly slick and devastatingly funky synth lines of these tracks. Part of me was sad that I was in the press pit during this, because in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be grooving with the rest of the crowd (for reference, when “The Glitzy Hive” was released as a single, I listened to it on repeat for 3 straight days—I loved it that much). The recently released single “Toyota Man” followed, a heavily cumbia influenced track sung mostly in Spanish—a first for Palomo—that recounts his family’s journey to America, and which doubles as a sharp message aimed at the current administration and their immigration policies.

“Here’s a throwback tune” Palomo remarked, as the sparkly opening notes to Psychic Chasms track “Terminally Chill” came through over the speakers. It sounded like a dreamy, lazy summer’s day, and the room instantly felt sunnier. The band followed this up with “61 Cygni Ave” and “Street Level,” two of the most bombastic, flamboyant, discotheque-ready tracks in the band’s catalogue—“Street Level” in particular has this meaty synth drop about halfway through that never fails to make me headbang. Before “Street Level” though, Palomo took a minute to reflect on the 10 year anniversary of Psychic Chasms. He mused that this “means I’m in my 30s now,” and that he was “getting too old for this shit… here’s to another decade!”

After the sludgy Psychic Chasms highlight “Mind, Drips,” the band played “Slumlord” and “Slumlord’s Re-lease,” two tracks that are, to put it lightly, absolute masterpieces of production. Palomo had the entire crowd chanting out the song’s “it goes on and on and…” refrain as they all clapped along to the beat. The hazy, smokey, buzzing, and frankly… downright sexy “Slumlord” was designed to seamlessly transition into “Slumlord’s Re-lease”—an extended instrumental track—and the result was breathtaking. Palomo’s brother and the band’s bassist, Jorge, even swapped over to a pair of bongos during this part, which added a new type of liveliness to the track.

Before the next song, Palomo remarked that their next song was so new “that we haven’t even recorded it yet.” That song, titled “Everyone’s a DJ,” was a laid back city pop ballad that made me even more excited for their yet to be announced upcoming album. Palomo provided a bit of context for the following tune, recalling that over the summer, the band had been invited to Italy to play a show with “disco godfather Giorgio Moroder.” The band wanted to dedicate a song to him, so they learned how to play “Vamos a la playa” by Italian disco band Righeira. Palomo commented that “strangely enough, [the song] is not one of his, so the gesture may have been completely lost, but hopefully it won’t be lost on y’all.” To be sure, I don’t think that anybody in the audience was expecting this cover, but it was bouncy and infectiously catchy to the point where nobody could stand still. As they began to bring the show to a close, Palomo and the band brought out “Deadbeat Summer,” one of their most beloved tracks and arguably one of the songs that was at the forefront of the oft-maligned chillwave genre. Palomo pointed his microphone at the crowd so they could sing the song’s iconic “ahhhhhh… ahhhaaaHHHHoahhhh” refrain and swayed around the stage—clearly, he was having fun.

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After coming back to the stage, Palomo and crew played through a stellar encore set. Up to this point, the setlist had a notable absence of any songs from 2011’s criminally underrated Era Extraña, which was recorded in the midst of a deep Finnish winter. Naturally, the songs on that album came out far moodier and heartsick than other songs from his discography—not that you would have guessed that judging from the crowd’s particularly enthusiastic reactions to these songs. “Hex Girlfriend” was grungy, with imposing walls of fuzz that veered on being blatant shoegaze. And “Polish Girl”, with its distinctive six-count blips and blops, sent the audience into overdrive. “Your face still distorts the time,” Palomo sang—it was one of my favourite lyrics in 2013, and as it turns out, it’s still one of favourite lyrics today. The band concluded with an incredible surprise cover of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” which is easily the most sweet and heartfelt song that you could ever end a show with.

Normally if I’m at a show on an assignment, I walk around the venue throughout, snapping photos all the while. I never bother to enter the pit because it’s hard to get a good spot if you weren’t in it from the very beginning. Even though it’s a different way to enjoy a show, I sometimes feel that I’m missing out on something just by doing it. But when I heard those familiar, woozy opening notes to “Deadbeat Summer,” I found myself right there in the crowd, pressed right up against the barricades. I took out my earplugs—because I will risk hearing loss for Neon Indian—and allowed myself to, for once, get completely lost in the music. I shouted the choruses back at Palomo with the rest of the crowd, danced like nobody was watching, mouthed every word of every lyric out loud. Even if it was just for a little while, I was 15 again, standing in front of the Clockenflap stage, my back facing the Hong Kong skyline, surrounded by my friends. 

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