Florist and Skullcrusher – Morning and Evening

Take a deep breath – you need it. Just close your eyes, let your surroundings fall away, and breathe…

A few seconds pass and you get the sense that something has changed – the air rushing against your skin feels and smells different, and at a distance you hear sounds that definitely weren’t there before. You open your eyes to see what’s happened and, right in front of you, the doors to Fort Worth’s newest music venue, Tulips, stand open. You look down and realize you are now in mind of a 23-year-old college student who really hopes he can figure out how to use a DSLR camera before the Florist / Skullcrusher / Adelyn Strei show begins. It’s 7:43 PM, and this is his first time doing a Radio UTD event review.

I arrived at Tulips frighteningly low on gas, having made the hour-fifteen drive from UTD to 635, then down 30, then down 183, then down 820, then down etc. until finally arriving at the venue’s quaint, white-wood entrance. Anxiety was high and time was low, and before I had even gotten a grip on how to use the camera’s shutter, Adelyn Strei began her set.

Amidst equipment that looked as if it’s been in the same place for years – used often but always returned perfectly where it was – Strei took in the thick Fort Worth atmosphere and sent it through the body of her clarinet, creating an atmosphere of her own. Behind her a purple LED-lit fog oozed into the air, filling the stage and corporealizing the atmosphere into something ethereal, and otherworldly; it’s as if she was channeling drowsy spirits with her music. She kneeled to capture her notes on a sampler, set near her feet, and within an instant the notes left her, taking to the air as if they were the spirits she was summoning. In this magic, which had already captivated the scarce two dozen people in the audience, Strei turned to pick up an electric guitar, and she began singing: “I’m electric like an animal.”

If openers are to be graded by how well they introduce themselves to a crowd that has, in all likelihood, never heard them before, Strei can be graded well. Her quiet, careful, almost ritualistic playing, emboldened by vocals as smooth and sparse as gusts of wind, hypnotized the audience for the short thirty minutes that she was on stage. Though she has but one song on streaming at the time of writing this, I am certain that at least a few attendees of that set will have an eye out for her future output.

Fifteen minutes following the conclusion of Strei’s set, Skullcrusher entered. The crowd had tripled in size by this point, with many having taken residence on the concrete during intermission. They began to stand at Helen Ballentine’s entrance, but she reassured them that they could sit if they’d like to; “It can be that kind of show,” she said, and as the next forty-five-plus minutes would prove, it was that kind of show.

As we in the audience would later find out, this was the first solo Skullcrusher set. Though it is a solo project, Ballentine had, until this night, always played with one or two other people, each helping to give the songs the same level of fullness live that they have in-studio (from what she said, it appears that these other members couldn’t make it to the venue in time.) What this means is that, excepting the final two songs of the set, which featured backing instrumentation from three of the Florist members, Skullcrusher’s performance at Tulips was uniquely stripped back.

Alone, she strummed electric and acoustic guitar chords to an audience that was half-seated, and half-standing. Her nervousness was obvious, especially whenever she paused to adjust her tuning or talk to us, but it came out much differently while she played. One look at Ballentine’s strained expression as she sang, “Do you ever look back? Does it all fit together?” revealed an anxiety far more familiar than the one created by her predicament, and as the azure overhead lights traced the room, dragging across its brick walls and briefly enveloping her guitar, it became clear to me that this performance was a reliving of the very pain that created these songs.

With each song we were transported, in mind, to a dark blue night, seen through the windows of a house not unlike the one on her debut album’s cover art. This view, made lonelier and more painful with every passing track, seemed to go on forever, without hope; it is only when the penultimate song, “Window Somewhere,” began that Ballentine, aided by the surprise entrance of Florist’s instrumentalists, finally and beautifully brought this night to an end. They finished with one last song, textured fittingly with the early morning chirps of birds, and took their leave, leaving thus one more band to cover.

If Skullcrusher’s set can be said to symbolize the most difficult night, then Florist’s must be the most beautiful morning, though this impression carries with it two different meanings. The first songs they played – all from their recent, self-titled album – warmed us with the bright optimism of sunrise; the whispery vocals of “Red Bird Pt. 2 (Morning)”, sung by frontwoman Emily Sprague, combined with the shimmering aura of “Sci-fi Silence,” all felt like encouragements to face the day with a smile. Only, this smile isn’t maintained easily.

Following this introduction, the band began to dive into their darker, more taciturn material, revealing that although the morning sun’s glow is bright and beautiful, it cannot erase the scars of the previous night. The first of these songs was introduced by Sprague as a “nightmare in reality,” comprising, it seemed, the death of our solar system; in the next one she described the sun falling from the sky and onto the floodplains. Briefly she even played solo, performing material from the aptly titled “Emily Alone” album. It was a heavy change of pace, and the band came close to losing sight of the optimism proposed by the first three songs, but even through the haziest, most dispiriting of moods colored by this material, a certain familial way Florist interacts with each other kept the atmosphere grounded.

To watch Florist play is to be transported to a house you love, surrounded by people you trust and played to by those you care about. It’s a personal experience, more so than any other show I’ve seen, and so even with this transition towards darker material, the underlying joy of their performance was not lost even a little. When, towards the end, Sprague announced that they had just two songs left to play, the cries of “Noooo” and “Awww” were undoubtedly genuine; no one who saw that show wanted it to end, including me, because of how nice listening to them felt.

After the last note of the last song had passed and we had all erupted in applause, Sprague jokingly said that a yearly Florist performance at Tulips might become tradition (they had played the venue exactly 364 days prior.) If that turns out to be the case, I will without hesitation brave the overlong and arduous journey to Fort Worth to see them once more. I hope that you will too.