Bands I Saw Last Week

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A Seasonal Disguise at the VAC

Despite there being nearly as many people in the audience as there were on the crowded stage last Wednesday, A Seasonal Disguise played a nice warmup for their gig opening for Built to Spill at the Egyptian a few days later.

It was the first time I'd heard them, and they had a pretty solid clean pop sound, with a nice balance of tones from a variety of instruments that each were allowed their own space to breathe. The bass-lines carried the songs forward without being intrusive and there was some excellent use of guitar reverbs for atmospheric effect. I barely even hated the glockenspiel or that they had the indie-pop uniform down pat, with standard issue beards and button-up sweaters.

What I liked most about them was that despite a clear stylistic aesthetic, they consistently varied their arrangements and sounds to create clear distinctions in songs that still maintained the overall themes in their sound.

What drove me nuts though, was the superfluous percussionists. There were two of them armed with barely-played tambourines, neither of them doing anything that couldn't have been easily done by another member of the band or even really adding to the sound. More than anything, they were visual clutter that distracted from the performance, especially the guy, who looked bored, like even he wasn't sure why he was on stage. It smelled of that cliche in which a band-member doesn't want to make their boyfriend or girlfriend mad at them, so convinces the rest of the band to allow them to play the tambourine in the background. But in A Seasonal Disguise, they placed these interlopers front stage center much to the confusion and frustration of myself, and my companions.

However, it's likely the reason that bugged me so much is because it was the the one standout in what was otherwise a pretty good band, definitely one of the better acts I've seen in Boise.

The Chicharones at Reef

Some bands are like a one-night stand, where you're not entirely sure you even want to listen to their album later, because their show was so fun, that no album, no second date, could be anything but a disappointment. Friday at Reef, The Chicharones put on easily the best show I've seen in Boise, giving the the tightly-packed crowd a virtual eighties movie party scene complete with people taking turns in the dance circle and energetic hip-hop singalongs of classics like, Do You Love Me Now That I Can Dance, and Survivor's Eye of the Tiger. They put so much energy into their performance that the mics crunched throughout and no one cared, too busy dancing for the band to even get a glass of water despite numerous polite requests.

But what really made the show was the overall level of non-douchiness that it was embued with. Hip-hop used to be like a game of verbal jenga, a gleeful quest to raise the stakes a little higher until it all tumbles down to everyone's collected delight. That was what made it party music. The Chicharones get that and are clearly, nice, fun guys in it for the game, not for the winning of the game. The reason the crowd had such a great time was because that's exactly what the band was doing on stage.

One day I'll listen to their album. But not today. That show was too good.

Powerman 5000 at The Knitting Factory

PM5K is a band that truly understands rock and roll. They know that it's supposed to be painfully loud and unabashedly rather than unintentionally dumb. They know that a note on the bass starts at the shoulder, snare hits start above your head and your fist should pump on the downbeat of every chorus. They know that there isn't a point in having a guitar strap if not to swing it around your neck like a hula hoop. They play back-to-back solos and do synchronized windmills through full stacks with their logo spray-painted on them because they get that rock has always been about absurd spectacle that makes the kids go nuts, that everything else is pop.

They took the stage at The Knitting Factory with matching leather jackets like props from The Road Warrior, robot helmets with blindingly bright LED eyes and their singer alternating his movements between doing aerobics and conjuring up black magic as they tore through track after track that sounded like a jackhammer putting four to the floor. Songs with names like, V is for Vampire, When Worlds Collide and Time Bomb. Songs with emotional anchors in sixties pulp sci-fi and the intellectual heft of cabbage. Was it dumb? Oh f#$% yeah. Was there a gang of meatheads ruining it for everyone? Intermittently. But was it awesome? Unquestionably. There isn't any other band I'd rather have play my apocalypse.

Hillfolk Noir at The VAC

This was the second time I've seen Hillfolk Noir, and I liked it a lot better than the first when they were spread awkwardly across the stage at The Bouquet. For the VAC show, they circled up down and center, like they were huddling on the porch of a plantation shanty, a formation that played much better to their sound and their image.

And it's a great sound, evil hillbilly music with the feel of The Violent Femmes Country Death Song or transposing folk standards like You Are My Sunshine to minor keys. Pretty much exactly the sound you'd expect from a thesis like Hillfolk Noir.

But there is a distinction to be made between sound and songs. And I found the songs a little disappointing. Chord progressions bob when they should weave. Lyrics zig when they should zag and sometimes stand pat in the face of oncoming awkwardness. When they sing about the night before they went to Vietnam, or Johnny and Billy hiding out in a trailer park, I just don't believe them. Nor I couldn't hum you a chorus.

This is the problem with a stylistic genre box. There are thematic and melodic maps long established and straying from them within the genre feels off for reasons hard to clearly ascertain. It's just a fact that not everyone consistently writes great songs. And with a stripped down style, you can't disguise a mediocre song with production tricks. This is why standards were so popular historically with folk acts. A great band is far more common than a great artist.

Still, that ragged shuffling sound is fantastic. I'll see them ten, twenty, thirty times, hoping for the right song to complete the recipe.