Review: Deal Casino – House of Independents

August 8th, 2019, marked a monumental night for music in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The show was announced by the headlining band, Deal Casino, on June 3rd and took place at the House of Independents on Cookman Ave. Fans had been anticipating the show since June, showing off their excitement all over social media. The most evident proof of excitement came the day of the show; after arriving at the venue in the early afternoon, those of us waiting in line got to witness two little words get added to the marquee: “Sold Out.” The line stretched all the way down the street, and Deal Casino later revealed that that was the first time they’d had people line up specifically for them. It wasn’t their first headliner, but it was shaping up to be one of their most memorable. With five different artists poised to take the stage throughout the night, I was greatly impressed that there was never a moment when the show seemed too long. The crowd stayed engaged through each act, with the energy only increasing as the night went on.

Bottled Blonde, the moniker of Mackenzie Brown and the first act of the night, put on one of the calmer sets, but never so calm that the audience fell asleep. The sounds of the first song, “French Toast,” were simple, subdued, and sweet, giving the audience a perfect impression of what they were in for. We were then treated to an unreleased track called “Miami.” Mackenzie’s dreamlike speaking and singing vocals echoed softly through the venue and when combined with the air of mystery and stylistic dissonance from instrumentalists Anthony Yebra and David Colon, it created a falling-down-the-rabbit-hole type of performance that I could only note as “gentle storytelling.”

“Fruit,” the second single ever released by Bottled Blonde, was one of the most attention-grabbing songs of the set. Mackenzie told the crowd that the song was about “somebody who didn’t know what they have…they’re made of plastic.” If the audience wasn’t captivated by the lyrics, comparing the simple perfection of plastic fruit to the fleeting life of real fruit, the unexpected beauty of each chord change had them hooked. This led into the eerie, piano-heavy “Less Than Graceful,” a song that perfectly fits the cover of the Bottled Blonde EP: a picture of Mackenzie standing in the doorway of a dark room and clutching a knife while a hand reaches out from the darkness. Next came the gentle groove of “Entitled Boy,” described as a song about “the worst kind of millennial you’ve ever met.” The title alone got some cheers, and the storytelling elements made a bolder and brighter return. The last song of her set, “No Fun,” was a bit of a calmer tune, but there was plenty of great buzz from the electric guitar and synth that kept the audience on their toes. Overall, Bottled Blonde was a perfect beginning to the night, essentially telling the audience “If you enjoyed this, stick around.” Her debut single was released less than a year ago, and she’s already proven herself as a confident songwriter and performer who knows her strengths, never giving the impression that she was unsure of herself on stage.

Mackenzie Brown of Bottled Blonde

Second up was Sean McVerry, a singer/pianist with plenty of class and flair combined with synth and upbeat pop. “Creature Comfort” had a slightly understated beginning until drums kicked in and got everyone moving. For the next song, “Times New Roman,” Sean encouraged everyone to dance and “wiggle around” to his songs, telling us “it’s weird and that’s fine.” The audience took that encouragement without hesitation; nobody cared about being a perfect dancer, just about having fun. “Mellow Drama” was quite a shift, immediately starting with the heavy groove rather than waiting to ease into it. Afterwards, Sean said it was time for a “slower piano one…right after a beer sip.” True to his word, right after a beer sip for him and his band, they performed “Maria,” a dreamy ballad with a great display of Sean’s piano skills, and “Burning Out,” a mellow synth-heavy jam. After a round of applause, Sean announced to the crowd that he’d be releasing a new album in November, then quickly picked the pace back up with the absolute bop “Bar Talk.” At any given moment of the set, no one in the band strayed from flow of the songs and the setlist, and that was the most evident when some technical difficulties arose. As Sean went to fix the problem, he asked drummer Zeno Pittarelli and bassist Jonathan Sacca for a “cool, fat beat,” and they did not disappoint. The audience kept up with the beat and jammed out for a little bit before Sean eventually said “Forget that MIDI bullshit, we’re gonna do the song anyway” and started up one of his most popular, upbeat tracks, “Red Light.”

The last song of his set (but not really) was called “Natalie,” a tune about Sean’s experience with college. He told the crowd that college made him feel safe, and the song was about not knowing what to do when school ends and the pressure of needing to have your life completely figured out. It was a perfect song to leave the audience with, given that most of the people in the room either had experienced that feeling or were currently in that situation, and it wouldn’t be the last time that college anxieties would be brought up that night. Now to elaborate on “last song but not really”: Before leaving, Sean asked the audience to do “one more 30-second thing,” and everyone quickly agreed. He led us to sing a note for three beats, then clap on the fourth, and while we did that he sang a song that I was later informed was called “Current State.” It was a performance that almost felt improvised simply because he was so free-spirited; He never lost his rhythm, even stepping off the stage and into the middle of the crowd for the last few moments. It was a perfect way to bring everyone together for the end of his set, really nourishing the sense of community in the room, and I bet everyone who was there is now looking forward to his November album.

Sean McVerry

The third act of the night, Sonic Blume, was another well-known band from Asbury Park, as evidenced by the amount of their shirts in the crowd. The band took the stage as the song “Black Sheep” by Metric played, and it must have been extra special to the band given that “Black Sheep” was covered in the movie “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and lead singer Max Connery’s jumpsuit sported art from the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel on the back. Their first song, the recently released single “Aubrey,” was also a nod to a Scott Pilgrim actress, Aubrey Plaza. “Aubrey” was an immediate hit, getting the crowd dancing right away and leading to the first mosh pit of the night, and was followed by “Do Anything,” a reflective synth-filled tune that upheld the established aesthetic of floating through a neon haze. Truth be told, it was sometimes hard to take notes during their set due to the sudden bursts of light and energy and the dancing outbreaks that overcame the audience. I couldn’t help but notice how much the band mirrored every ounce of happiness present in the crowd. If a band member wasn’t entirely engrossed in a specific riff or a wild solo, they were looking out around the room with the biggest smile on their face. It must have certainly helped that every song in their set was a dance-worthy hit.

Next on the setlist was of their best known tracks, “Sunflower Bean,” a song that felt like a shoegaze-y retelling of Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” and – as was expected by this point – led to even more joyous dancing. Their most recent release, “Pink Boots,” was a dreamy, groovy trip that they dedicated to their friend Chris, even renaming it “Pink Boots for Chris” for the night. It was another down-the-rabbit-hole song full of gorgeous harmonies and celestial synth, a perfectly timed mid-set jam before the next song, “In The Sun.” This entrancing track started another mosh pit, one that I would have barely expected had I only heard the studio recording. However, it sounded like paradise and everyone looked like they were having a wonderful time, so it was still greatly enjoyable. Sonic Blume closed off their set with a thank you to Asbury Park and “Shotgun,” a hazy rock tune that gradually crescendoed into a more guitar-centric rock finale.

Max Connery of Sonic Blume

The final opener, American Trappist, wasted no time getting into the grit of their set with their first song “Getting Even.” The music was immediately heavier and louder than any of the previous acts, a slight deviation from the audience’s expectations, but still fitting. It was pretty late in the night, and while no one in the crowd was in need of an extra boost of energy, American Trappist was ready to give it their all and make sure everyone was not only awake and alive, but ready to keep partying until the night was through. There wasn’t as much talking between each song, bringing back the slight air of mystery introduced at the beginning of the night and, once again, making it difficult to tear myself out of the established atmosphere to take notes. The crowd was treated to killer beats and stomping feet, all tied together with lead singer Joe Michelini’s voice like dark velvet. When he asked if we were “ready for a little more rock n’ roll,” the screams nearly shook the room, and everyone was ready and willing to rock out for the rest of the set, if not the rest of the night.

“No Bibles” was a standout song, with a lyric that perfectly captured the feeling of the night: “Everybody here is the same, isn’t that right?” Even with all of the differences, everyone in the crowd became a family as the night went on. The stage was clearly no separation from the crowd for this group, and this was shown mostly through Michelini standing at the edge of the stage multiple times throughout the set. He came close a few of us with his guitar sometimes, and while we might have caught a few drops of sweat, he never hit us with the guitar (much appreciated). There was a moment before one song when he asked a few people near me to catch him if he jumped into the crowd, and they agreed. He made sure that they were expecting it when he finally did jump into the crowd, and he thanked us for not letting him smash into the floor.

There were a few points in the set when it seemed like the band was nearly possessed by their instruments, diving deep into the music and pouring all of their blood, sweat, and tears into their performance. A few times Michelini fell to his knees at the end of a song or during an especially intense solo, and whether it was out of exhaustion or pure ecstasy I couldn’t tell. The band – drummer Shane Luckenbaugh, guitarist Max Kulicke, and bassists Lewie II – also poured their heart and soul and more into each note, each chord, each bang of the drum, and the audience was more than grateful. Though it’s updated and revamped and a little grungier, American Trappist might just be your father’s rock n’ roll. Once the dreamy daze from the beginning of the night was given American Trappist’s extra boost, as if struck by lightning, we couldn’t have been more prepared for Deal Casino.

Joe Michelini of American Trappist

After all of the curtains and fabric covers were removed, the audience finally got to see the full setup. The stage was formatted like a living room, fitting Deal Casino’s aesthetic perfectly. There were a few patterned rugs laid across the floor, a couch and a chair on the sides of the stage, and several different lamps scattered all around. In between everything were six small television sets, with a projector screen backdrop posing as the seventh large television, and for six different songs throughout the set, all of these televisions played a VHS tape. Every part of the setup made the show even more welcoming, like we were all gathered at someone’s house.

Speaking of the stage, it’s at this point that I want to mention how impressive the behind-the-scenes crew was all night. With five bands performing, all of the set changes and instrument checks had to be quick and efficient. Thankfully, the crew was exactly that, moving through each set change with ease and handing everything with the utmost care. It was even fun to see/hear someone checking their bass guitar by playing along to a song on the speakers (“Uncontrollable Urge” by DEVO). It just showed how everybody who set foot on the stage was practically made of music, following all of the natural rhythms and beats the night had to offer. I extend many thanks to the crew, because this phenomenal show wouldn’t have been what it was without them.

When the house lights dimmed and the show finally started, the TV screens were immediately utilized. A clip of filmmaker William Castle started playing from his movie “The Tingler,” wherein he informs the audience that “at any time if you are conscious of a tingling sensation, you may obtain immediate relief by screaming.” Cue the audience screaming and cheering as the band started to take the stage. The first song of the set, “French Blonde,” was a perfect opener that kicked off with a heavy drum beat and a wild, bending bassline. As more synth effects and warped feedback were added in, the audience got more and more excited, and everything finally came to a head when everyone in the room shouted the first line of the song: “I’m a dead animal.” Only a minute in and that one single line proved that this would be a great set, and bassist Jon Rodney later said on Instagram that hearing the entire room shout that line was “one of the best moments of his life.” The fire of “French Blonde” carried right over into “My Gun,” and the combination of these two made a real statement; the band may as well have just stood at the edge of the stage and screamed “Welcome to the show!” The next two songs, “Baby Teeth” and “Bare Hands,” weren’t as heavy and intense, but still just as exciting and energetic for the crowd. “Bare Hands” was especially inviting given that it was from Deal Casino’s self-titled first LP, and new and old fans alike sang every word of every chorus.

At this point, all of the lights were turned down and the televisions turned back on with a new VHS tape, a collage of video clips. Some clips were random videos, but others were taken from home movies of the band members, with footage from events like holiday gatherings and birthday parties. This led right into one of the newest releases, “Robin Hood,” a song that may as well be the anthem for hopeless romantics everywhere. When the bridge rolled around, the VHS tape took an abrupt turn by showing atomic bomb test footage. Lead singer Joe Parella (aka JoeP) confirmed in an interview with Soundigest that “’Robin Hood’ is just this super dark love song about promising all of these things to someone that you can’t realistically live up to. When I wrote the lyrics, I was really into atomic bombs and watching test footage online.” This concept must have connected with everyone in the room, seeing that it was one of the most popular songs of the night even though it was one of the newest releases. Whether someone views “Robin Hood” as happy or sad, it transitions perfectly into “Happy People,” another song that touches on sad topics in a happy-sounding way. There was plenty of singing and smiling present and it may have been partially influenced by the new VHS tape, a loop of the dancing scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which the band had joked on social media would be the new music video for “Happy People.”

Left to Right: JoeC, Chris, JoeP, and Jon

We were approaching the middle of the set at this point, so it felt like a good time for some introductions for those who weren’t as familiar with the quartet (or were just trying to figure out which Joe was which). JoeP introduced multi-instrumentalist Joe Cowell (aka JoeC), bassist Jon Rodney, and drummer Chris Donofrio one by one, and for each musician the audience gave them a good cheer or chanted their name. In fact, throughout the set the crowd took turns chanting for each member of the band, usually their last name or abbreviated name. There was also a brief chant for their dog Boomer, who wasn’t at the show (or even in the state of New Jersey). After introducing Chris, JoeP told the crowd “I told Chris he was never allowed to wear shorts on stage,” and – in some excellent comedic timing – everyone stopped playing their instruments and Chris stood up to show that he was indeed wearing shorts, right as JoeP said “and he still did it.” This earned him another cheer from the crowd, and the band swiftly went back to playing. JoeP then introduced himself before the next song, a fan favorite tune called “Chocolate Cake.”

The band has said that “Chocolate Cake” can be tricky to play live, given all the unique sounds and rhythms incorporated throughout, but it’s also a live favorite for those same reasons. Both studio recorded and performed live, the energy throughout the first half of the song really fluctuates, like you never know for sure where it’s going, then quickly hushes as the second chorus comes in with some soft vocal harmonies courtesy of JoeC, Jon, and Chris. Right as everyone started to feel used to the tone, the second chorus ended with a dramatic spike in power and a sudden wild increase in volume from every instrument, leading to the first mosh pit of the set. In fact, when the song was over – and after JoeP mentioned that this show was the first time people had lined up for them – Jon added that that was also their first mosh pit, and I think many would agree that it was rightfully earned.

Keeping the party going, next up was “Purple,” another song from the self-titled LP. This tune was on the set list, but came as a surprise simply because it strayed so far from the studio version – but not in a bad way. The original recording is already great on its own, but in this live rendition the band played around with the tempo, the volume, how many instruments were playing, and even the lyrics when Joe sang “The soft wind blows across your face/reminds me why I hate this place” before quickly clarifying “not *this* place” and pointing to the stage. The four were able to improvise and have fun, showing that they’re comfortable enough with the song to mess around with it and follow each other’s lead whenever needed.

In terms of songs surprising to the lineup, I certainly don’t think anyone expected to hear a cover of “I Want It That Way.” It was just JoeP with his guitar, and he introduced the song as one of the first he ever sang as a kid. He admitted that he sometimes couldn’t remember the second part of the first verse and asked the audience to help him out. Only the first verse and chorus were performed, but the show turned into a giant sing-a-long before the first line was finished. Joe was barely at the microphone, at one point stepping completely away and dancing a little bit to this spontaneous karaoke party. Even more surprising was the perfect transition from JoeP stretching out the final “I want it that way” to the intro of “Red Balloon.” It’s another one of their most popular songs, and the televisions came back into play with a VHS tape of old airplane/flight machine test footage. It had a similar essence to “Purple” as a fun, bouncy track, and the second verse had a mini bass feature with the guitars cutting out so Jon would be heard more clearly. To put it simply, you really can’t go wrong with “Red Balloon.”

The next song of the night might have been the biggest surprise of all, given that it wasn’t on the written setlist: “Flying Cars.” This was another one of their earliest songs, released on their 2014 EP Heck, and JoeP told the story of how it was written: “I wrote this song after I dropped out of college. I moved to Belmar with Jon…I wrote this song, like, the second night we were there, freaking out about the decision I made.” These guys have always been very candid about the uncertain future that comes with being a musician and certain anxieties, whether financial or familial, that come with touring. This song showed that they had nothing to hide, and it was one of the rawest, realest moments of the show. No colorful flashing lights, no VHS tape, just some bright white lights and a story to tell. I know I wasn’t the only one getting emotional since a large portion of the crowd formed a “Hug Pit.” A part near the end of the song called for the crowd to sing a simple melody on an “oh,” and everyone did so with passion and enthusiasm. Someone was even lifted up to crowdsurf, just kind of laying on top of everyone’s hands with his limbs splayed out as if to say “carry me away.” The crowd and band alike both loved it, laughing and cheering while holding him up, and Jon even held up his hand in a “rock on” sign. It’s so unexpected for a moment like that to happen during such a touching song, but it’s a testament to how much of a family everyone became in just a few hours. The emotional impact was still there, with everyone figuratively (and in that guy’s case, literally) holding each other up. Before the song ended, there was a sweet moment when the band gathered in front of Chris’ drum set, enveloped in soft white light as the music kept building into the phenomenal final chorus. All of these wonderfully wild emotions led perfectly into the closing song of the set, the tried and true “Color TV.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this song is a perfect album opener for their second LP, “LLC,” and a perfect show closer at the same time. The band’s whole television aesthetic was neatly tied together with this song, and the crowd sang the entire time.

Now after the bridge, JoeP usually teaches the crowd the lyrics to the chorus – even adding a few hand motions and a dance on the lyric “dancing” – so those that might not know the song as well can sing along before the song ends. Joe told the crowd “Usually I teach this part to the audience when we’re on tour, but we’re home so I don’t know how many people know it.” He wasn’t able to finish that sentence before people started shouting “We know it!” with one fan yelling for the band to “just take it from the top!” And so, without any rehearsal or teaching, everyone sang and danced to the last chorus. The crowd, the band, the lighting, everything went absolutely wild at the end of the song, with every instrument on stage being utilized. As if that wasn’t amazing enough, the band put an exclamation point on their performance with an audience group picture and a signature death-defying jump from JoeP off of the tallest amplifier.

But here’s another perk of being a headliner: an encore. The crowd cheered and chanted for just one more song, and thankfully Deal Casino was prepared with two. JoeP returned to the stage alone with a guitar and people in the crowd called out various song titles. Joe couldn’t help but laugh a bit and ask “Are you calling out songs? I’m all alone, I can’t even do them.” The song he finally started was “Father’s Day,” the final track on LLC and another raw, emotional tune that hits straight to the heart. This was paired with the final VHS tape of the night: grainy black and white footage of outer space. If you only heard the first minute of this song, especially live, I guarantee you couldn’t predict how it ends. The first two verses and choruses were very stripped back, with only a lightly plucked guitar melody or simple chord progression underneath Joe’s quiet vocals. The song has a light hopefulness to it, with lyrics such as “I’m learning how to engineer so I can fix everything by next year” hitting home with anyone who has felt overwhelmed by sadness or the pressure of the world to be perfect. The rest of the band came back on stage during the second chorus, ready build the song up to its grandiose final minutes. Even when everyone kicked back in at full force, they maintained the heavy emotion established at the beginning, something that’s not easy to achieve. From the silent plea of “so I can fix everything” to the desperate cry of “but I can’t fix anything,” nobody held back. The crowd stared in amazement as all of the incredible effects from the song’s studio version were played out in full and Joe screamed the final few lyrics, a question begging for an answer: “What went wrong?” The phrase “say it with your chest,” might as well be referring to this song. Whether soft or loud, the band performed at 110%, wailing on every instrument possible and still making it fit. JoeP kept erratically playing his guitar while tightening the tuning pegs until at least three strings snapped off. Anyone who had never heard the song was most definitely not expecting that firecracker ending, but I’m sure even those familiar with the song were wowed by the amazing display. Either way, these guys weren’t done yet.

This set didn’t end with a whimper or a bang, but with a “bangbangbang.” It was introduced as their “newest old song,” as it was another track from the EP Heck that had been re-recorded and re-released less than a week before the show. This was yet another great connection between new and old fans, since almost everyone in the room probably knew one or both versions. Even with an energetic start, the band still held back just a little until the chorus rolled in (Once again, for anyone seeing this song live, it’s another one with a completely unpredictable ending). The room was suddenly awash with pink and yellow lights, matching the new “bangbangbang” single cover art. The first two verses and choruses were full of shouting, dancing, jumping, singing, everything imaginable, but it was all taken down for the bridge.

The band knelt down and sat – or in JoeP’s case, laid down – on the stage for the entirety of the relatively quiet bridge, and the crowd all crouched down with them. I later learned that this was something they’d done for the original version of the song, and it warms my heart that even with the re-recording, they kept this tradition. Everything seemed like it would slow down for good, with the instruments cutting out one by one until only JoeP’s voice remained. Just as quickly as they left, though, every instrumentalist returned, gradually increasing their volume and rising up from the floor with the crowd until JoeP sang the bridge’s final line “leave your window open/you know I hate to be alone.”

It was at this point that these guys went the extra mile, with people behind the stage and up in the balcony throwing down pink and yellow beach balls and Styrofoam airplanes. The party came back twice as fun as before, something that seemed impossible, with another mosh pit opening up and crowdsurfers aplenty. It was one of those moments where you couldn’t stop smiling if you tried; every single opening band, every song, every mosh pit, every guitar solo, every single second of the show led up to this perfect moment. For just a minute, it was like time stopped and everyone was allowed to let go and indulge in the music. The band even added another chorus, cutting each instrument out and inviting the crowd to sing: “you and me go/all the way/something’s missing/that’s okay.” (Bonus: JoeP narrowly missed getting hit in the head by a rogue beach ball during the line “something’s missing”) I don’t think anyone wanted it to end, but the group finished with one final “bang”, playing their instruments with every last bit of energy, stomping to the beat of the drums, and batting a beach ball into the crowd with a guitar, knocking over a mic stand in the process. With the amount of noise, it’s surprising that anyone left that room with their voice or eardrums intact.

I want to finish this off by giving credit where credit is due, just because there’s a lot that matters that either wasn’t displayed only on the stage or just wouldn’t fit within the boundaries of one song. As previously mentioned, the flow of every artist that took the stage was phenomenal, and looking back I think it made even more sense. If you think of the show as a single human being, it began with Bottled Blonde, the head. She set up the headspace for the rest of the night, letting everyone know what to expect; the light, bubbly tunes got the crowd bopping and swaying their heads with smiles all around. Next was Sean McVerry, the hands and arms. His songs got the crowd dancing, or at the very least shimmying their shoulders, and the increasing energy led to waving, clapping, and snapping. Sonic Blume got the crowd dancing even more, making them the hips and legs. They bumped up the dancing and jumping and swaying, especially with the night’s first mosh pit. American Trappist was the legs and feet, taking a turn into heavy rock and getting the crowd stomping and jumping and going absolutely wild. Now what does that make Deal Casino?

Really, as the headliners of the night, Deal Casino was a culmination of all four previously mentioned aspects (especially if you saw JoeP’s guitar solo in “French Blonde”) but if we have to pick just one important thing, they were the heart. (Yes, it’s a bit cliché, and I bet you may have just rolled your eyes, but hear me out). And not to discredit anyone, I want to make it clear that every artist present that night put their heart and soul into their performance. The show surely wouldn’t have been the same if even one had been missing from the lineup.

Some might say that Deal Casino has a lot of sad songs, and to an extent that’s true. Plenty of their songs have chord progressions, melodies, and instrumentation that suggest sadness or have a more “in-your-head-and-in-your-feelings” sound, and plenty of their songs deal with serious subjects. However, whether happy or sad or soulful, their songs present something that the audience can relate to.  One of the reasons their fans keep going to shows is not only the amazing music, but the fact that they care about making strong connections both on and off the stage. Long after the show, they found out someone had passed out during the show and sent out a tweet asking if anyone had information and if the person who passed out was okay. Another fan commented on an Instagram post saying that they had to leave before their set because of a family emergency, and the band replied by saying they hoped everything was okay and thanking them for making it to the show at all. They’re a band that needs to be seen and heard live to be believed, and they absolutely deserved a sold out headliner.

One more time, major props to every band that performed that beautiful night; there wasn’t a moment that I didn’t enjoy and I’d gladly see every artist again at the next opportunity.

All photos of Deal Casino provided by Ciara Perrone. Thank you Ciara!

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