Part of the reason the Fiery Furnaces are a live draw is that, unlike many touring artists out there, you are guaranteed a different show EVERY night. My last experience was more of a “miss” than a hit, which happens when an artist makes a decision on how to interpret their music. While I could appreciate the musical talent required to execute their show at DC’s the Black Cat last year, I really wasn’t enjoying it.
Luckily, this time around, I got the best of both worlds from a heavily funk and jazz-fusion influenced show at Baltimore’s Ottobar.
This show was well-attended relative to some Ottobar shows as of late, but the place should have been mobbed when it was actually only 50% full. Thank You provided the first opening set of the night, playing their distinct version of electronically-tinged noise-wave. Not my thing. I felt most of the songs got lost in themselves, no real momentum was obtained and no release to be had. Uninspiring post-punk dragged through the gutters of trance and electroclash. I think they could learn some lessons on where to take their sound and how from DC legends Q and Not U, and with some focus, could create a compelling body of work. But they need to tidy up their arrangements.
Next up were another, more well-known band of locals, the Oranges Band. A distinct contrast to the more technically complicated and experimental headlining Furnaces, and openers Thank You, Oranges prefer to play straight-ahead, unashamedly hooky indie-pop. They have become proficient at their craft, but there is one problem: so many other artists are in this stable that, unless you are a true prodigy or have some distinctive hook, you WILL get lost amidst the sea of others. Though infallibly catchy and easy to listen to, Oranges Band pushes no envelope and makes no real distinctive impact. But that’s ok tonight, because the Fiery Furnaces provide enough of it all to sate even the most cynical listener.
Let me preface this by saying that the Fiery Furnaces are some of the most talented musicians on the indie circuit today. They play music not as individual musicians, but rather a gestalt. With how much they change their songs on the fly when performing live, I am always surprised at how tightly they play. A true testament to their talent and work ethic.
The Furnaces live show is quite different from their CDs…to the delight of some and the chagrin of others. They approach their live performances as a chance to create art and deconstruct their own music, changing tempos, times and keys like so many dirty pairs of underwear. It seemed the Furnaces were listening to a heavy dose of funk judging by their interpretation last Friday night. A large portion of their setlist laid down heavy grooving funk beats and basslines. This contrasts favorably to the aforementioned Black Cat show where things were much closer to a fusion of spoken-word, free-style rap, trip-hop and acid jazz; technically complex but rather dense, detached and inaccessible. Their set this past Friday was definitely more cohesive and preserved more of the sugary hooks from their recorded material.
“Single Again” was delivered at a slower tempo (relatively) with more pop flavor and melodic vocals, faithful to the recorded material. “Evergreen” was a highlight as one of the most vulnerable and moving performances of the night. “The Philadelphia Grand Jury” and “Duplexes of the Dead” were infused with electrifying energy while remaining the closest resemblance to their recorded performances. What I think set this show above the previous one at the Black Cat was that Eleanor spent more time delivering melodic, tuneful vocals rather than the rapid-fire rapping she loves so much (while good, she’s got such a knock-out singing voice it pains me to see her let it sit unused). Matt’s keys and the rhythm also tended to gel much better at the Ottobar, probably because Matt reined in some of his more obtuse and avant-garde urges.
The Furnaces closed with one of their famed, monstrous medley tracks, assembling pieces of no less than 4 songs from their catalog (that I could discern) into one epic, lumbering giant of a finale. The sheer quality in execution of this feat at each live show is awe-inspiring to behold. And basically guarantees I will be front and center again for their next show, testing the waters and eagerly awaiting the next reimagining of their sound.
Photo Credit Tim Castlen