Whartscape 2008′s Friday show was at the 2640 Space, a church undergoing renovation assisted by the Red Emma’s collective. In exchange for their services, they get to hold events provided there is no alcohol sold/drunk on the premises…house of God and all.
This year’s line-up has more variety with a less shotgun-based approach of toss whoever, together whenever (as intimated by Adam in our interview). And what more perfect theme for the 2640 Space than a night focusing on folk, performance art and generally softer music and calmer music than the electronic spazz rock Wham City is better known for. The hallowed and empty space, presided over by stained glass cut with sacred and holy images, is one cavernous room. An orator’s dream, as well as any musician or vocalist.
Unfortunately, the crowd was somewhat stubborn and unwilling to let the music get in the way of their socializing. Sets from gentle giants like singer-songwriter Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez were effectively destroyed by idle and not-so-low chatter. In fact, things got so bad that Dan Deacon himself went on stage before the chamber-ensemble-like Golden Age, and implored people to take their conversations outside, rightfully labeling those who didn’t “idiots.” This lack of focus on the music proved detrimental to many performances of the night, most notably Lesser Gonzalez and Wheatie Mattiasich. This was not helped by the fact that sound was spotty at best. Feedback from too-live mics was all too frequent, a recurring problem that reached its apex mid-day Saturday and miraculously cleared for all of Sunday’s sets.
As I walked in, Santa Dads were on stage with their blurred vision of performance art and music. An all-too-seldom experiment these days, as they are rarely seen playing shows. The most engaging thing about them initially is their costumes (Connor Kizer’s Hobbes cat-suit and Josh Kelbermann’s Santa’s Helper outfit). But as the performance wears on, the haphazard, whimsical nature of their music and the intentness of their performance recalls memories of an older era, one from history texts and cartoonish images. Where the poly-talented extroverts produced microcosmic escapism for small groups of eager on-lookers in small towns and villas around the world. Santa Dads are time-lost, traveling entertainers struggling to adapt to modern notions, but ultimately deciding to drag us back into theirs.
Wheatie Mattiasich appeared to have some interesting things going on in the subtle folds of their wide-open, fragile folk music. Andy Abelow backed them up, creating a tense, shrouded aura about their music. Sadly the aforementioned din of the crowd, combined with some uncooperative soundboard settings, crippled the set to muddy, near inaudibility.
Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez, however, probably had the hardest time. Lesser’s intimate performance approach, more addressing a campfire than rocking the audience from the stage, is probably one of his greatest strengths. It works extremely well with his gentlly cascading falls of guitar notes, plucked and twanged with effortless ease and fantastic sound. But the din of the crowd was just too much, along with some mood-breaking clatter from Arbouretum setting up. Another sin of the 3 stages in a crowded room: someone is always hauling around and noisily setting equipment up. Lesser, while visibly dismayed and frustrated, persisted on trying to sustain that impeccable mood he was constructing. Kudos for that. Again, though, a ruined set from the combination of bad sound (inopportunely feedbacking mic) and a casual audience of those concerning music secondly.
Home-town heroes Arbouretum took the stage next. Theirs was the first time I lamented the brevity of sets during Whartscape. Things were run like clockwork and each artist got their 20-30 minutes and promptly ended, switching gears to the next.
Dave Heumann and crew’s music was not meant to be rushed. They are undoubtedly a force of nature; thus, when they only got the chance to stretch their wings for 3 (I think) songs, it felt almost criminal. But what a set of songs. A huge, lush sound that grows to impossible and awe-inspiring heights (much like the population of their namesake), they were the first artists of the night I heard that had a great sound board and really exercised the fantastic new JBL PA’s. Things soared and really made use of the vaulted church ceilings. “Flood of Floods” is likely to be Arbouretum’s opus and calling card for a long time to come, a smoldering number that blooms and blooms as it progresses, spiraling guitar riffs leading the listener on an expansive journey towards one big cathartic jam.
Golden Age followed with their much more classically-influenced set. Much like a chamber ensemble, they employed a sizable traditional string section, horns including sax and trombone, percussion as well as a mini-choir for vocals. Diverse instrumentation with fantastic arrangements. Beautiful moments of both fullness and sparseness. Eclectic sounds with a bit of a penchant for the abstract and contemporary, but never at the expense of coherence. Dan Deacon showered them with praise, saying they have a huge dynamic range. And this couldn’t be more true. It’s a shame many others chose to ignore this and chatter on through. This set, much like Arbouretum’s, deserved a much longer play-time to build up a true experience, rather than just a sampling.
At this point, I had given up. Jana Hunter’s set seemed well-received, but the crowd white noise was inescapable and stole much of her thunder. When her music swelled, things were fine but as soon as any nuance or subtlety was attempted, the crowd roused back up. Which is an absolute shame because I was so looking forward to her set. Luckily, I was definitely able to pull a few jewels out of the performance.
Finally, Beach House. I’ve gushed over Alex and Victoria before. I’ll do it again. I was unfortunate in that I missed their previous 2640 gig opening for Grizzly Bear. And their set matched my expectations for them playing their sparkling, dilapidating pop in such an acoustically gorgeous setting. The crowd also, finally, packed in and shut the hell up. By this time, 2640 was capacity plus and sweltering. Rivaling heat levels of Floristree 2007. But it all felt miles away as soon as Alex and Vic opened up and dropped us awash in their glorious visions. Victoria’s voice soared as expected, like a skilled gymnast playfully flitting about their the air, catapulting and doing acrobatics both bewildering and wonderful. When she opened up near the end of the set, hairs stood on end and bones vibrated to the marrow. She could have easily shattered a wine glass. She has an absolutely angelic voice.
Which is not to say that Alex is in any way less of a star. When he and Victoria both pull vocal duties, the effect is enthralling. His guitar work, as ever, was expressive and tight. I only wish each time that they could amp him up a little more. The warm blues-and-soul flecked drawl of his reverb-and FX heavy lines are absolutely essential, in my mind, to really anchoring the mystique of their sound as well as the pacing. Ultimately, it provides a great complement to Victoria’s vocals. Despite minor cracks, their performance was an absolute gem, electrifying the room and lifting everyone into the clouds.
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