I had high hopes and expectations for this show. So high, in fact, that I skipped out on my first ever chance to see Underworld in Baltimore. I was a huge fan back when the Everything, Everything live album/dvd came out, and I was a huge fan of Trainspotting in high school. Who can forget that last monologue by Renton done over the opening chords of “Born Slippy Nuxx”? But that monologue is all about choice, and Saturday night I chose the rustic world of Bob and Small Sur over the nighttime beats of Underworld. I chose happiness and bliss.
Another huge factor in my decision to forgo Underworld was the fact that I love the 2640 space. I have never been to a poor show there. It is intimate, a place to see familiar faces and enjoy great music. This was the exact opposite of Virgin Fest, a scene resembling a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and unfortunately more often than not, with fitting music, too
It would also have been hypocritical of me not to show up. Ever since Aural States received We Live in Houses Made of Wood, we have been extolling the virtues of folky-americana-pysch-rock (not a catchy title, but I don’t know what else to call it) a la Small Sur. The band’s new album is nothing short of amazing, and I have been telling everyone who cares to listen (and some who really didn’t want to listen) how great this album is.
When I was trying to make a decision about which act to see, I figured that I would be disappointed either way, and regret the choice I made, regardless. However, the night at 2640 was so perfect that I found myself wondering why I had ever considered staying at Virgin Fest. After a long day of standing in the hot sun, the couches and chairs setup in a semi-circle around the floor were a welcome respite.
I walked in to the sounds of Stephen Strohmeier, and sat down next to some friends (after spending all day at V Fest amongst hordes of drunken strangers, it was reassuring to be around people I know…I’m like that). Like I mentioned above I had spent 8 hours straight in the sun, and I wasn’t in the state of mind to be hypercritical of Strohmeier’s music. Instead, I was so sunburned, dehydrated, and worn-out that all I could do was enjoy his music. With just his guitar and voice, he doesn’t break the singer/songwriter mold, but not all conventions need to be broken for music to be strong. Strohmeier’s set alone over shadowed all I had seen that day at V Fest, save for one act.
Small Sur was up next. I had the intuition, that gut feeling, that the set was going to be astounding even before it began. Small Sur went through most of their songs from the new album, but with the noticeable exceptions of “Roots,” and “I Love the Sun.” I thought for certain that when Bob reached for his acoustic guitar “I Love the Sun” would be next, but we got “Sand Dollar” instead. No big deal when you have an album as strong as We Live in Houses…and all the songs approach perfection.
I spoke briefly with Bob after the show and commented on how unified the album is. He said the goal was to make a record that was a continuous whole, meant to be listened to in one sitting, and not just a bunch of singles. This is true of the album I thought, but also, each song is so well crafted that there is no song on the album that couldn’t stand alone as a single.
Small Sur’s stage presence is understated like their music, but the band collectively carries an aura of quiet musical strength. No flashy solos, just ridiculously tight playing. It is worth mentioning here that Andy Abelow is an amazing musician. The times I have actually been most impressed by his playing, he has been in a supporting role. He is a true musician, who generously gives his all to the song even when it’s not his own.
Lesser Gonzales Alveraz–I missed his set at Whartscape, and as it happened I had to take a call from an erstwhile family member during much of his set that night, so I was politely outside of the building. Though the last two, or so, songs that I did hear were pleasant. I don’t want to base any opinion off of only two songs, and I don’t mean this as a slight to the performer (Aural States will make up for the lapse Lesser Gonzales Alveraz!), but the call was urgent indeed.
Jana Hunter was a musician that I was introduced to at Whartscape (not literally introduced to me personally, but you know what I mean). The persistent side conversation, and also the next band sound checking overshadowed Hunter’s set at Whartscape. She has song writing talent, that is for sure, but after seeing two of her performances, I have the distinct impression that she is not quite there in her live performance. Not to say that she is a poor performer, she is strong, though I think she still has more potential yet to be tapped. Not to dwell on the negative, but she had a mulligan in her final song. She fudged the looping sequence of guitar sounds. Not a huge mistake in anyone’s book, but this is the kind of mistake caused by nerves, or as Hunter suggested the “really strong coffee” she was sipping on.
But the night wasn’t about flawless performances, nor should it have been. Folk/singer/song writer/whatever-the -music-on-the-bill-is-called is about expression, and in that respect Small Sur poured forth. It just so happens that their performance was flawless too, the cherry on top.
In an odd paradox Small Sur’s themes are universal emotional issues, yet Bob’s voice is steady, and the band restraint. This is not Jamie Stewart and Xiu Xiu, though I think Small Sur’s emotional impact is no less.
I’ll leave you with this final thought. Bob’s voice, and lyrics, for me at least, call to mind the opening lines of that famous poem:
“Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Futures, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees,”
The genius of Bob is his ability to jump from experience (“Roots”) to innocence (“I love the Sun”), though it is that unique innocence that is not naive, not childish–the joy of simple pleasures from a man who also knows pain, and loss.
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