Peace amid chaos

Diversity of cultures, instruments: After Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Dallas and all of the week’s tension about race and prejudices, it was refreshing to see people of all colors creating soulful music together at Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub last Friday.

That band was the Lique from Las Vegas, led by Rasar Amani, who rapped locally years ago as Random Abiladeze. He describes the Lique’s music as “satirical, jazz-based hip-hop with a little bit of funk. … Poetry over ethereal beats.”

I felt the band’s emotion—and the dichotomies of life—when it played “Billie’s Holiday.” The lyrics spoke of hard times and sporadic thoughts, yet the music still forced everyone to dance.

At one point, members got the crowd involved and made us repeat after them: “I am love. I am peace. I am joy. That could never be destroyed.” Their collective voices—accompanied by live bass, electric cello, keyboard and drums—did more than just pump up the song. They wanted us to truly believe what we were chanting; they wanted to uplift our spirits.

Similarly, positivity is the concept behind the Lique’s newest album, Democracy Manifest, which drops July 21. Songs like “Share My Soul for You” and “Frequency” urge us as listeners to affirm the things we want to see.

After the set, I pulled Amani to the side and asked what he thinks is the best way to create change in America right now.

“It is at the moments when we feel all is lost that we kind of find a peace amidst the chaos,” he said.

“The idea is to get us angry, sad, afraid. These are all natural reactions, but are we supposed to dwell there? You just have to silence yourself and allow things to simplify,” he continued. “No matter what is coming our way, we’ve been here before and we’re going to make it through.”

—Taylor Desmangles

Heartbreak cafe: Sacramento native Billy Lawler has turned a cafe into a confessional booth for the release of his debut EP Nostalgic. Inside the cavernous performance space of Naked Lounge, the singer-songwriter howls with his heart first. Some of the 40 or so audience members are hovering in the doorway, sipping mochas and rapt in silence.

While he lived in Sacramento, Lawler kept his talent under wraps. Then, after two of his friends who had cheered on his idiosyncratic sound passed away, he had his first live performance at one of their funerals. To honor his friends’ wishes, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue music.

The performance at Naked Lounge feels like a family reunion, with relatives and friends traveling from across the state. “Thank you to anyone who drove really far or liked my stuff on Instagram—” Lawler says.

“—or changed your diapers,” his father interjects from the audience.

Surrounded by these childhood reminders, Lawler transports the audience back to the eras of trampolines and adolescent heartbreaks. He’s written these delicate songs in his bedroom over the course of seven years. The intimate diary entries mix R&B, Motown and Sam Smith-esque crooner balladry.

Trained as a jazz and classical pianist, Lawler brings finesse to an instrument that’s otherwise crude: the electric piano. He gives each note its own spirit, phrasing with thoughtful dynamics and resolving cadences with a chord that comes seemingly out of the blue.

Then, there’s that voice. With fluttery vibrato, Lawler soars in his falsetto range with a sweetness that quiets the chatterings throughout the cafe. He belts with a soulfulness that calls to mind his recent losses. He cartwheels around his range and emphasizes words with sudden embellishments, but all this control comes at a cost: Lawler is a perfectionist. He stops a few times to correct mistakes, sometimes imperceptibly.

The peak comes with the second-to-last song, “Casualty,” when Lawler lets his guard down to reveal raw emotions. He embodies the accusatory, sad lyrics: “You said you’re a dancer, but you never dance for me.” With sweat beading on his forehead, Lawler closes his eyes and sings through a pained smile. His vocal technique loses its perfect veneer, and in that vulnerability, we feel his sorrow.

—Rebecca Huval