As I sat on the floor of the Echo Curio on Monday, July 6, 2009, completely enraptured by the range and scale of the talent on display, I couldn't help but reflect back on the startlingly ordinary and by-the-numbers impersonality of the show I'd seen the night before at the Hollywood Bowl. The contrast was enormous and unsettling.
On Sunday, July 5, I'd ventured up to the Hollywood Bowl to see The New Pornographers open for Death Cab For Cutie. Despite the absence of Dan Bejar and Niko Case (the latter, we'd been promised), they delivered a powerhouse set of amazing hit songs, one after another, with Kathryn Calder (I believe) doing a terrific job of filling in for Case. They have such an incredible catalog of songs to choose from, there's no clunkers.
Followed by Tegan and Sara, who sing delightful songs with the sisters sharing back and forth vocal leads in a most ingratiating and winning manner. Problem was, after eight or so songs, they all sound a little too similar. But their unpretentious and warm stage presence counts for a lot.
When Death Cab For Cutie came on, they sang a set of songs before being joined by The Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I was startled by the hyper-energy of Ben Gibbard, whose music and demeanor have always struck me as rather laid back and subdued. But on Sunday the band took on the rock icon attitude and I found it, sadly, at odds with their music and frankly, a little weird.
Their slight, melancholy, introspective compositions are often quite beautiful, but when overplayed, they resemble a mouse trying to give a piggy-back to an elephant. They don't need to pretend they're Bon Jovi.
Perhaps I am spoiled by too many concerts where I'm five feet in front of the band, but, much as I have enjoyed the Bowl experience in the past, the huge gulf between audience and performer is becoming insurmountable to me. It's fine for a band like Arcade Fire, who are so brilliant and dynamic (and so large), they obliterate that gulf by the sheer strength of their performance and their product. R.E.M., last year, showed a knowledge of how to fill this huge venue, although the set was so programmed, it could have been a filmed performance.
By the time the orchestra joined Death Cab For Cutie, I'd been a little put off by the inappropriate athleticism of their show and underwhelmed by the sameness of the songs, which were all pitched at the same level. So when the Philharmonic were added and the whole thing turned to mush, I bolted. I was, frankly, not sorry to leave the majority of the audience, who seemed to respond with a mechanical enthusiam (when not texting), as if trying to convince themselves that they weren't bored.
Flash forward 24 hours, I'm walking into Echo Curio as Elisa Ferrari is on her first number. This venue is so intimate that when you open the door and step inside, you're on stage with the band. I smiled at the performers, they smiled back as they're playing and singing and I slid in sideways to eventually find a spot on the floor. Heavily populated with a smattering of familiar faces I was struck, all at once, that a more inviting atmosphere would be difficult to find. You could fit five Hollywood Bowls in this place and not come close to the level of musical magic I witnessed Monday night.
Elisa Ferrari (below right) is a band from Austin which features the singing and songwriting talents of guitarist Elisa Ferrari, Jen Smull, who seems like a classically trained cello virtuoso with her stunning playing and Ian Dicke with his perfect contribution of bass lines and beats that added gravity to these lovely, original tunes. The drummer and all round 'I'll-play-whatever-is-necessary' presence of Owen Weaver adds dimension and variety to an already impressive array of sounds.
I was immediately drawn in and became a willing passenger to whatever destination Elisa cared to take us, by the style and quality of the music and lyrics. Sounding a bit like folk tunes, mixed with a little Parisian cafe ambience, a taste of jazz and even a hint of Broadway style, the blend comes across as new and original. The mainspring holding it all together is the strong and assured vocal style of Elisa Ferrari. I am a fan, and judging by the reaction of others, who had also never heard them before, I'm not alone.
Between sets, I met the band, and everyone emptied out onto the sidewalk for some air. I enjoyed meeting up with Tommy Santee Klaws and company. Cave Country were there too, and Ryan Fuller of Fort King, so it was like old home week.
Tommy Santee Klaws (below) set up, with a slightly altered line up and led into an hypnotic set of songs that had the audience in mouth-gaping rapture from the first note of music, on that toy piano played by Donna Jo. The beautiful, reflective and intelligent lyrics reveal a desire to look at life honestly, the bad and the good, with a minimum of self-deception. The notion of always being willing to pick up the pieces and move on, no matter what life throws at you, is something I'd like to think I can relate to and is one reason I am so often very moved emotionally by this band.
One great song after another and you could feel the audience's excitement mounting. The extraordinary vocals of Tommy And Sam Seree with assist from Donna Jo, the amazing upright bass by Tom Paige, the mandolin and vocals of Jason Boles and a drummer I'm not sure I met, all added up to another perfect set by this most amazing band. They have a consistency of style that never becomes repetitious... on the contrary, it's thrilling because you've never heard anything like it before.
By now the crowd was kind of loopy from the one, two punch of the first two bands. One almost hoped the third band would be more ordinary so you could come back down to earth. This was not to be.
I may fail in my attempt to describe this band because they are so unique and unusual and they had me in the palm of their hand from the start, so words may fail me. Marshweed is the name of the band and the leader and songwriter is Heather Lockie (below) of Listing Ship, who are a band I have seen and liked in the past, but this is a completely different animal.
It's almost a form of performance art, with the performers sitting on the floor on the Echo Curio's big oriental rug as the whole audience does likewise and sits on the floor as well. Heather begins singing shyly and quietly as her gorgeous viola slowly insinuates itself and as she is joined by the sturdy voice of Shawn Lockie and the contrebass of Laura Steenberg.
Funny, ironic lyrics are aided by some of the most curious instrumentation I have ever heard. It was all highlighted by a song whose name I don't know, but could be named after the famous cartoon Toot, Whistle Plunk and Boom. It bordered on performance art in the way Shawn and Laura removed impliments of noise from two bags set before them, in time to the music and adding (or throwing them down) at the end of a line. I was completely mesmerized by Marshweed.
I can't imagine how this sounds recorded, but I'd be willing to bet, pretty great. The evening ended on a high note and I think everyone was amazed that three such great band could mesh so well yet each be so completely original. This had to be one of the best coordinated nights of music I may have ever attended and I flew home in a state of euphoria that lasted the entire following day.