LVL UP are the great American boyband.
Or, at least, that’s how they jokingly described themselves at the start of their set at the Middle East Upstairs on Thursday (October 5). After a few doses of their distinctive brand of fuzz rock, not one member of the spirited crowd would disagree.
Bolstered by a pair of phenomenal sets from openers Littlefoot and Loone, LVL UP kicked things off at the Cambridge club with “Hidden Driver,” the breakout hit from their most recent album that recalls the frantic strums and vocals of Neutral Milk Hotel. The band started the song with a slow, deliberate build-up, exchanging cheeky glances and withholding any melodies that could reveal which song they were about to play. When they finally exploded into the verse and guitarist Dave Benton started singing, all four members broke out into uncontrollable grins, as if they had reached the punchline of a joke that only they were in on.
Even after more than six years as a band, it makes sense that LVL UP would be this excited to play. After all, they have had a pretty fortunate run since their formation while attending college at SUNY Purchase. Exhausted from years spent grinding away in New York’s DIY scene, LVL UP was on the verge of calling it quits when representatives of the indie giant Sub Pop caught a few tour dates following their beloved 2014 album Hoodwink’d. Charmed, the Seattle label offered to release their follow-up, the critically-acclaimed 2016 full-length Return to Love.
Now when LVL UP perform, it’s as if they’ve been given a hall pass, a second chance to keep going and just have fun with it. This translates to a looseness on stage that energizes the crowd and lends a fun, imaginative flair to established hits like “I Feel Extra-Natural” and the all-out freneticism of “Blur.” But even at their most boisterous, the band’s underlying musicianship comes through to bring everything back together. This became especially evident on Return to Love standout “Pain,” when vocalist Mike Caridi stealthily replaced the bridge with a few lines from Elliott Smith’s “Roman Candle” before descending into a cacophony of pounding drums and squealing guitars.
When the four members of LVL UP looked up from their instruments to proclaim that the next song would be the last of the night, they seemed to share in the groan that rose from the audience, wishing they could keep playing forever. LVL UP have found themselves part of a long tradition of American guitar bands trying to forge a place for themselves among their ’90s heroes while they wait for their big break. But when they finally launched into “The Closing Door” and the crowd began to move again, it was easy to believe that they could be the band to carry that torch to great new heights.