My first show of 2009 was pretty awesome. Which is good, because this is supposed to be Awesome-2009.
Neumo’s was in “oh look, we’re a small venue” mode. This is accomplished in a sneaky way: close the upstairs and drop a curtain halfway through the room, making it El Corazon deep but still Neumo’s wide. The air conditioning was on, which was good because I was wearing my fancy new winter coat. Though it was blasting down rain when I got there, after the show it had stopped raining. I’m also pleased to report that my basement is not flooded this time around.
Carrie Biell is the Blake Schwarzenbach of alt-country. Not lyrically so much, but her vocal style oddly reminds me of pre-tumor-removing-surgery Jawbreaker for some reason. Perhaps because I’ve been considering a trip to San Francisco to see Thorns of Life at Gilman on January 31st…. At any rate, Carrie and her band have all the requisite parts for the indie rock retirement plan: pedal steel, a bit of twangyness, subdued volumes and a sizzle crash. I love sizzle crashes. psshssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss! The drummer looked very well trained by some high school jazz band teacher somewhere, perhaps even a college jazz band teacher. I was mostly watching him the whole time wondering how those jazz guys decided to hold their snare hand stick like that. The pedal steel was wailing away over the standard alt-country stuff and the raspy, breathy girl vocals. The songs were really at their best in the melancholy and sparse parts, and that will be the introduction to the theme of the night. I’m not sure why soloists gather a band around them when they sounded perfectly fine alone.
I’ve told this story once, but I saw Johanna Kunin at the new Paradox and she did this vocal layering thing with a line 6 guitar delay pedal that was god damn amazing. She is now escorted by basically a full orchestra. Here are the instruments that were used during her set: piano, vocals, drums, guitar, bass, violin, viola, flute, clarinet, casio keyboard, vibes, and a shaker. Perhaps Johanna is just doing her part to help ease these difficult economic times by hiring as many musicians as possible. I’ve always been in favor of awkward silences and painfully sparse arrangements and the recent trend to try to fill the stage with a wall of sound a la Phil Spector has been somewhat frustrating to my personal aesthetic. Ms. Kunin could be up there breaking my heart into small pieces but instead I get distracted by the other instruments. Some of the songs are so beautiful when I imagine them in my head as simply piano and vocals. Recorded, they sound pretty decent, mind you, but on the recording the extra instruments are way down in the mix whereas tonight they were highly prevalent in the sound of the evening. I don’t know, it just seems too safe to hide everything in all these layers. Force me to be hurt by the plaintive vocals and lilting piano arpeggios. Make it personal. Okay, I don’t run her band, let me talk about one other thing I like a lot: the length of the songs. They are all just the right length. No unnecessary screwing around, just the parts that need to be there. So, thanks for that and your wonderful vocals.
The Grand Hallway set embodied the five stages of grief tonight. As anyone who has passed through them knows, they don’t just go from one to the other, the stages come and go like ocean waves, like parts of songs.
Denial – Okay, I have to stretch to make this one fit my metaphor but I really want to use it, so I’m going to say that the denial is not from the band themselves, but perhaps from the audience. The songs are quite beautiful and it might be easy to deny the fact that they move you, but they do. No matter how much you choose to ignore that fact, they still affect your emotions profoundly. Alright, the tough one is over.
Anger – During one of the songs, Grand Hallway rocked out. I know, you can’t believe it. Well, it’s true. Mr. Nakayama was pounding the piano keys harder than I have ever seen him do before. The anger was a palpable facet of the song. On the verge of losing the control that makes the songs stay structured and sensible, the band nearly flailed about under the influence of this powerful emotion.
Bargaining – There really wasn’t much bargaining to be done. Everyone grieves differently, you know. However, Mr. Nakayama did manage to get us all to pretend that it was New Year’s Eve all over again and do a countdown and everything. I suppose that is like bargaining.
Acceptance – During another song, Grand Hallway seemed genuinely ecstatic. Like they had found their peace with the world and everything was right again. I was really happy for them at that moment.
Depression – Click on that link up there and tell me that Grand Hallway songs are not sad (try Seward Park, for example). Still don’t believe me? Go to a show (or wait for the new record to come out, apparently) and wait for the last song. If you have any soul at all, you might be moved to tears. The last song is quite possibly the saddest song I have ever heard in my life. I’ve mentioned it in every review I do of them because it breaks my heart every time. Maybe it’s just my particular history, but “I spend most every night wondering how you are” is equivalent to E.T. almost dying or Han getting frozen in Carbonite or Gandalf falling with the Balrog or any of those moments where there is not a dry eye in the house. I was very intent on purchasing the album with this song on it and was perturbed to find that it is being mastered right now and will be out soon. Particularly since my stupid fancy phone couldn’t handle the volume of the speakers and failed at bootlegging the song for me.
Now, don’t think that I’m going to let Grand Hallway off the hook for their attempt at the wall of sound just because they make me wonderfully sad. Here’s the list of instruments used in their set: two pianos, two guitars, bass, two violins, drums, mandolin, pedal steel, 3 vocalists, banjo, whistling, a backup choir (sort of), accordion, tambourine, sleigh bells (like these), and a partridge in a pear tree. Again, I imagine Mr. Nakayama up there on the stage, just him and his piano (or guitar). Nothing to distract from the fact that he is up there smashing your weak heart to tiny, tiny bits. The sleigh bells made the saddest song in the world just a little bit ridiculous, but I tuned them out and just listened to the heartbreak.
Well, it is 2 in the morning and I have to wake up in four hours to go to work. Shows during the week are awesome!