After six weeks of touring coast-to-coast, the Jersey-based band The Happy Fits threw themselves a homecoming party at Montclair’s Wellmont Theater on Oct. 28, and brought along the bands they shared the road with, for fun. “Happy Fest” spanned nine acts and seven hours of music, with some of the musicians decked out in Halloween regalia, accompanied by deafening screams of approval from audience members who clearly loved every minute (many of them dressed for the occasion, as well).
No one seemed to mind that the headlining band only included lead singer and classically trained cellist Calvin Langman from the Happy Fits lineup. Drummer Luke Davis and guitarist Ross Monteith announced a mental health break shortly before the start of the tour. The show didn’t sell out; about half the balcony at the 2,500-capacity venue remained empty. But the general admission orchestra section seethed with a packed-in crowd, mostly eager teens and young adults, with a smattering of older fans.
Langman, Davis and Monteith, beginning as high school students in rural Pittstown in 2016, have released three albums and an EP, and have quietly built a devoted national following that has resulted in nearly nonstop touring in theater-sized venues, and millions of streams.
The fill-in Happy Fits — guitarists Raina Mullen and Nicole Rosenbach, and drummer Trevor Hogan — have reinvented the sound of the band, eschewing the indie folk-rock vibe of early recordings for a full-throttle bombastic rock sound that doesn’t let up in intensity for a second. All three boast excellent voices and many songs have been gerrymandered to provide lead vocal parts for each of them, freeing Langman (who wears a harness that lets him hold his cello like a guitar) to dance around the stage.
Langman was always the most charismatic band member and, as lead singer, the focus of attention, but the way the new lineup is configured onstage, he came across like a solo artist with backup musicians. And while his cello could be felt as a sawing bass undertone, his leads got lost in a frequently muddied mix.
They’re still playing Happy Fits songs — divvying up the setlist to include cuts from all four of their releases in almost equal measure — but ever so much more so. For fans who came to scream and pump their fists and get lost in volume and intensity, and a light show of flashing red and white strobes, it was one hell of rock show, honed by weeks of touring. There were only two small amps visible onstage, and Langman’s cello has a wireless pickup, but save for a few tracks, it was boomingly LOUD to the point where everything sounded pretty much the same.
During the pandemic, the original trio did livestreams from their studio, and those stripped-down performances captured the nuances and subtlety of the songwriting. The records reflect those attributes, too, even if the production has grown fuller and more aggressive with each new release. But live, these Happy Fits come to scream in your face, not whisper in your ear. I would have enjoyed a few whispers.
But credit where it’s due: Langman’s vocal cords must be made of titanium. He nailed every high note and soared on every dramatic chorus. Familiar melodies did emerge from the cacophony. “Do Your Worst,” the final track on the group’s most recent album Under the Shade of Green, started the show, which ended about 75 minutes later with a three-song encore (including “So Alright, Cool, Whatever,” the band’s most popular track, with more 30 million streams on Spotify.)
The new lineup juiced up bouncy tracks like “Go Dumb” (a favorite from 2020’s What Could Be Better), the Caribbean vibe of “Achey Bones” (from 2020’s Concentrate) and the jaunty bounce of “Dirty Imbecile” (from the band’s debut EP, Awfully Apeelin’). But the set buried a few gems in a monochromatic blare, like the lyrics of the clever anti-sellout diatribe, “In the Lobby.”
On a positive note, Davis came out to play drums on the final encore, “Too Late,” which hopefully augurs well for his return in the future.
Earlier that afternoon, Asbury Park’s Dentist, Flycatcher and the Spins played on an outdoor stage.
The main stage featured acts that had opened for the Happy Fits on their fall tour. I missed the Hot Freaks, but Franklin Jonas, the younger sibling of the Jonas Brothers, awkwardly galumphed around the stage, backed by a guitarist, drummer and backing tracks. He had an unexceptional voice and almost none of the stage presence of his more famous brothers. He did play a new song called “Hoboken” that held promise, so the jury may still be out.
Santa Cruz’s Windser, the stage name of singer-songwriter Jordan Topf, was a revelation, though. Backed by a small combo, Topf looked sharp, displayed an appealing and nuanced voice, and crisply sailed through a set of catchy material that mixed shadings of folk rock and pop punk.
Hoboken’s Phoneboy, who formed as students at Stevens Tech, have matured into a charismatic pop dynamo since I saw them last. They entranced the crowd, played fast and tight but not the least bit slick, and delivered a set of the kind of tuneful indie rock that will hopefully win them a much larger following soon.
Boston’s Vundabar proved a disappointment after that. Fronted by the tall, thin and commanding Brandon Hagen, the band played middling indie rock with shades of Americana without hooks or a defining style. And the sound system rendered the vocals into a distorted mess, so lyrics became moot. I suspect I caught them on a bad night; compared to the rest of the bill, Vundabar came across as uninspired. They actually finished their set early and looked eager to leave the stage, and that’s never a good sign.
With Happy Fest, The Happy Fits join The Bouncing Souls, The Front Bottoms and Screaming Females in an elite clique of New Jersey bands who have created their own music festivals. What The Happy Fits will look (and sound) like in the future seems uncertain, but they have released an album every two years since forming, so we should know in 2024. Until then, all of their releases are available on Bandcamp, so your next favorite band may just be a mouse click away.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.