I had never heard of Balmorhea until they were highlighted in Brand X and I liked the description of their music. This mostly instrumental band from Texas appeared at the Echoplex last Monday, March 7, on a bill with Frank Fairfield, and since it was billed as a partially seated show, I decided to buy a seat and let their music wash over me.
I took a seat near the front as Frank Fairfield ambled on stage to play a set. I've been seeing him for a while now, ever since he was an opening act for Fleet Foxes locally, and on their first national tour in 2008. And I've witnessed the same phenomenon each and every time. He sits down in his unassuming manner, picks up his small guitar, tunes a bit and launches into one of his unearthed, early 20th century compositions and the audience gasps.
No one is ever quite prepared for the authentic sounds that come out of this young man. Though still in his mid twenties he seems to be channeling the heart and soul of musicians from a hundred years ago. He incorporates not only the vocal mannerisms, but many of the small tics and foot stomping, even the sudden bursts of laughter, that usually accompanies such music. And when coupled with his astonishing virtuosity on guitar, violin and banjo, he easily and handily whips the crowd into a near-frenzy, even though most of this audience was seated.
Everyone was caught off-guard, as they always are, by the intensity of his playing and singing. People, myself included, have been quick to label his music as Appalachian or Dust Bowl but, as he reminded us, these instruments are universal. His obvious love of the music he's playing and his desire to entertain and educate comes flooding out over the crowd.
When I Picked up their CD, Constellations, at Amoeba I knew I would like Balmorhea as soon as I heard the echoes of Erik Satie and Ennio Morricone, from his 1970's period (think Bertolucci's 1900 or Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven). As soon as they began you floated away on a cloud of feeling and emotions.
Their music has a bit more punch in a live setting, but still contains the sweeping orchestral sound their string section brings to the mix, creating definitive musical satisfaction. And when four musicians were all pounding away on the giant table xylophone, the repetitious movement came to resemble dance and moved the viewer/listener into a trance state.
Balmorhea's compositions are beautiful and delicate. carefully orchestrated to highlight each instrument, yet always eloquent and well formed. I came away totally in a dream state.