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Nation of Language made a statement at ‘unreal’ Turner Hall show

Daniel Ojeda / @ojedaphotographer

Want to get a little glow on a weekday night? Seeing a good show in a fitting venue is a good place to start.

It’s genuinely exciting when artists who are on the up roll through town to play an intimate venue. You catch them before they strictly play festival circuits or venues that put some serious distance between you and the stage. Luckily, Nation of Language visited Milwaukee at just the right time, as their popularity wave is cresting high after a summer of touring (notably at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound and Pitchfork).

Further proof of that came from the show moving from its initial location in The Back Room to Turner Hall Ballroom due to demand. The venue fit like a glove for a gothic-adjacent, dance-forward band like Nation of Language.

The trio’s recent boost in notoriety also rides on the release of their excellent brand-new album, Strange Disciple, issued after years of grinding, reconfiguring formations and putting out sleeper hit records. So, to have Nation of Language founder and leader Ian Richard Devaney comment at Tuesday’s show, “The last time we played in Wisconsin, it was in a living room. This is different,” it was clear he was marveling at the level they recently jumped.

Daniel Ojeda (@ojedaphotographer)

For a band, Turner Hall’s expansiveness and storied history is indeed awe-inspiring and even more exciting if that expansiveness is brimming with your eager fans. Nation of Language synth magician and singer Aidan Noell commented that she did some pre-show research on the ballroom, taking note that after 150 or so years, the magical venue’s stage was physically “coming to a point.” She laughed while saying she thought she might tip off the stage, causing a helpful fan to yell, “We’ll catch you!”

Tipped and slanted as the stage might be, no one in the audience would’ve known otherwise as Devaney danced, paced and shimmied non-stop from start to finish, tapping out robot Morse code on the synth station next to Noell, digging passionately into the strings of his guitar or simply holding a mic to capture his always on-point, emotive vocals.

And to hear Devaney sing no matter what he played? It’s a total joy. His voice alone evokes so much emotion while listening through headphones or car speakers. But seeing him sing takes things to a new level. Anyone at Nation of Language’s Studio Milwaukee Session earlier in the week got a little taste of that. But, at their venue show, Devaney launched himself into a new realm of sound and motion that just didn’t quit (until four encore songs capped off their set).

Daniel Ojeda (@ojedaphotographer)

Showcasing a bulk of new material from Strange Disciple and classics from their back catalog, the trio (including bassist Alex MacKay) got the crowd moving and grooving instantly, playing a spectrum of atmospheres that touched on sounds from the ’80s, yet never sounded like cheap mimicry; it simply sounded like Nation of Language belonged in those leagues and of that time.

The appeal of artists like New Order, OMD, Duran Duran, a-ha, Kraftwerk, Soft Cell, Erasure and beyond inspired the mixed-age crowd to start dancing and never stop. “N.O.L.!, N.O.L.!” the crowd cheered. “You’re all great dancers,” Noell cheered back sincerely. “This is unreal,” Devaney breathlessly uttered as the set neared its end.

Nation of Language’s relentless live energy and pitch-perfect sound truly captured their recordings nearly to a tee, which was a little disarming. If you closed your eyes, you would swear you were at home listening to the record on the turntable. Yet little impromptu moments like crowd clap-alongs brought things back to the venue.

When the band took their final bow with 2022 hit “Across That Fine Line,” the euphoric crowd might have finally taken stock that they were a little tuckered out for such a dance party on a Wednesday night. Starry-eyed, they filed over to the merch table and out the door.

  • The synth-pop trio swooped in the day before their Turner Hall show and struck an entertaining balance between stage presence and musical performance.
  • Touring behind their sci-fi-themed new album, the NY-based artist delivered something special by quite literally lighting up our performance space.

Opener Miss Grit gets big props from me for taking this type of dance-hungry crowd and locking them in. Even though their music required a more absorbed listening approach, Margaret Sohn gave it their magnetic all.

Earlier in the day during a Studio Milwaukee Session, they provided our listeners with a little taste of their musical prowess paired with stunning light effects. To hear their layered approach that touched on elements of rock, electronic and classical — speaking to fans of artists like St. Vincent and Bjork — Miss Grit showed their spiky, yet beautifully artistic intelligence. They emitted a calm, serene beauty, brimming with contained emotion that spilled out via their beautiful voice and unique narration.

To capture the attention of a slightly antsy crowd was a feat. Even when their projector lost its signal, they didn’t falter. Bathed simply in red light, Sohn sucked the audience into an otherworldly musical realm neither defined by space or time.

88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee