Sometimes I'll be walking up to a club after a day's work, walking three quarters of a mile from Sunset and Fountain, down the hill to Hyperion and up again to a place I've never been, and I'll think, "What in hell are you doing?!"
But it's the Hyperion Tavern on Thursday, January 29, 2009, and Tommy Santee Klaws is standing outside, with Cave Country, and I'm blissfully unaware that I'm about to see one of the most incredible live shows I've ever attended.
Going in, I'm amazed at the tiny space, but it's very inviting and comfortable. From ceiling to floor, books line the walls, all similar bound volumes of some California legal records. But they look impressive. Two over sized, gaudy, bordello-style chandeliers hang from the ceiling and red drapes, a nice, large bar, a piano and, oh yes, a disco ball complete the look.
And there is no amplification of any kind. This was truly going to be unique for me, seeing acts as if in a living room. Or a bar back during the settling of the west. Suddenly I felt like I was in McCabe and Mrs. Miller territory, especially when Country Tea began their set.
There is a stage, high, like four feet off the floor, which puts the performers well over the heads of the audience, allowing the sound to pour out, unobstructed, which works amazingly well.
Country Tea's lead singer and guitarist, Marty sings pure prairie folk songs, that sound right out of How The West Was Won, with vocal backup and a violin which evoke an incredible sense of another time and place. He has a clear, high voice with a nice tension and urgency which fits the nostalgic nature of his songs.
Speaking afterward, he told me that this was only the third or fourth time they've played with the violin backup, which startled me because they sounded like a natural fit. Country Tea played a lovely set in a perfect setting and it tuned your ear to the careful listening required to fully appreciate the non-amplified experience.
I got to speak with all five band members before the Tommy Santee Klaws set and really enjoyed getting to know them a little better. But once they took the stage and began, they rose to a level that left the audience standing back on earth as the band rose into the atmosphere, becoming rarefied objects of adulation.
This music is not normal, is the first thing that comes to mind. The twinkling little artifacts, the fiesta, carnival ambiance coupled with the funeral dirge beat and the gorgeous bass violin, led by the high, heavenly, and truly astonishing vocals of Tommy and his brother, bathe the listener in a haze of euphoria.
What separated this from the amplified show I saw them give at the Echo Curio last October was the restraint necessary to make sure each element of the music was at the proper level. This required a discipline that both impressed and moved me. Watching how in tune with each other this band is, made me see how rare that quality can be.
Especially impressive was the drummer, who could easily have dominated, but, instead played with such extraordinary restraint it became a delicate tour de force of percussion. But each performer provides such an important function in their sound that no element seems less important than another.
They opened with a new song that immediately grabbed the attention of everyone in the place and proceeded to keep everyone in their grip for their whole set. A couple of songs from their latest EP, Gloria were great to hear, now that I've become familiar with them, including "Smoke Spells". And I really loved a song from the earlier recording, The Fear, which had a refrain that began, "How do you keep your hair so neat, When your eyes always fall to the floor...". Their cryptic/ironic lyrics are another distinguishing feature of this magical musical combine.
I had to get up the next morning at 5 AM for a photoshop class, so staying to see Cave Country was not an option, though I wish I could have. They were nice to meet and I will see them in the near future. But the sets I did see of Country Tea and Tommy Santee Klaws were a privilege to hear and I felt really lucky to have been there. I was soaring the whole next day from this show.