When Jagwar Ma performed at The Sinclair in Cambridge on Tuesday evening , it should have been a party.
Their debut Howlin’ , one the most well-rounded releases of 2013, radiated every good thing about indie dance-pop. For such beautiful song-makers, especially ones who create such upbeat electropop, you would expect Jagwar Ma to put on a vibrant show that would have the entire audience dancing.
Unfortunately, this was not the case.
When lead vocalist Gabriel Winterfield emerged in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, it was one of the earliest signals of how relaxed the show was going to be. As the set began, the three band members started lightly bobbing back and forth to an intro that sounded more like the beginning of a Disneyland ride than anything else, before transitioning into the quirky “What Love.”
Experimenting with different vocal loops and layers, “What Love” proved right away that the members of Jagwar Ma know how to piece together a song. The band followed that song with the equally intriguing “Uncertainty,” complete with echoes and passionate vocals.
But it was just too difficult to get into it. It felt more like you were standing there as the trio jammed out and experimented with various samples, loops and vocal-distortion techniques. And don’t get me wrong: It was high-quality, interesting music — Think of it as maybe a War-era U2 blended with 21st-century electronica elements — but any sort of connection with the audience was completely missing.
On “Man I Need,” Winterfield’s guitar — covered in various stickers, including stars, flowers, moons and Adventure Time characters — bloomed with distorted and feedback-ridden riffs. It wasn’t even remotely perfect, but it didn’t need to be.
“Exercise” featured an even more intense jumble of samples and riffs, including some tribal-inspired beats. Winterfield got somewhat more into this song, engaging in some funky dance moves with his bandmates. It was endearing to watch them have so much fun together and it almost compensated for the lack of audience engagement.
The next song, “Let Her Go,” featured more excellent distorted guitar playing. It was maybe the best performance up to that point in the show, yet it also prompted perhaps the most awkward moment in the show when Winterfield attempted to get the audience to sing along with the chorus. Barely anybody participated.
The band then played almost a remix version of “Come Save Me,” with Passion Pit -esque sampled choir vocals and a rather intensified electronica feel. It was an exquisitely crafted version of the song, but it still lacked any sort of connectability.
Transitioning right into “Four,” the most upbeat and dance-worthy song on Howlin’, the three band members showed significantly more energy and passion. Winterfield ran around the stage, dancing and jumping along to the heavy beats. Despite the increased fun, however, the audience was still not engaged. At the conclusion of the song, Winterfield collapsed into a fetal position, perhaps as a stage antic, but more likely as a raw display of exhaustion and disappointment.
As an encore, “That Loneliness” dazzled in an unexpected manner. It was a bright ending to an otherwise lackluster show. Before leaving the stage, the three band members stopped timidly to photograph the audience and blow kisses.
Plenty of factors could have gone into the lack of sparkle on this evening. It could have been jetlag: The trio was playing its first show of the tour in the United States after being in Brazil just a few days prior. It could have been simply that the stage was much too big for only three guys.
Regardless, the lack of connection isn’t something that should deter anyone from seeing these guys. Jagwar Ma is a group of three dudes who just like to make music. They have crafted music absolutely beautifully, in fact. But on this night, they just didn’t have the full package. With a bit more refining, Jagwar Ma could become indie pop royalty. They already have the music to do so. They just need the stage presence.