Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Being Funny When Jokes are Lies.

You know, it says something about Richmond when I can walk four blocks, pay five dollars and see three bands. I hope. I never stop appreciating that.

And if I do, somebody please smack me.

Make no mistake, it had already been a good day. I'd taken care of a last-minute deadline. I'd had lunch with two interesting women who spend a week every summer taking a 17th century-style batteau down the river. Heck, I'd even seen a lizard in Carver and I didn't even know they had lizards in Carver.

I'd heard a radio show focusing on Philly music, old and new. It caught my ear from two rooms away when I heard the distinctive sounds of Teddy Pendergrass in Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. "The Love I Lost"? Be still, my heart.

But they also had current bands playing in studio, and one particularly mentioned how great the scene is there, affordable and happening. Lots of space to create.

Which it may well be, but you'd have a tough time convincing me it's better than here.

By the time I finished working, the show had already begun, so I hustled out to the sultry sidewalks just after another of the quickie rain showers of the afternoon. Halfway up the block to Gallery 5, I heard beautiful music coming from inside.

It was D.C.'s Hayden Arp, jeans rolled up to just below his knees, and part deadly earnest perfectionist and part open sore. His soft, confessional voice had an audience member (and my hero) giving the international "shush" symbol (hand at throat) to two girls laughing loudly during his set.

This was someone to listen to intently. "The next song is electronic but I'm not going to play it electronically except the amp for my guitar. It's called, I don't know what it's called." When I say he may be too busy feeling deeply to have time to name songs, I mean it as a sincere compliment.

On some songs, words ended softly in the back of this throat, echoing Morrissey's pathos, albeit without an electric guitar and band behind him.

He closed with the soaring "Gabrielle," which he mentioned he's been working on for four years due to internal and external emotions. "It means a great deal to me." That came through in the grandeur of the song, making me sorry I'd missed any of his set.

Considering how young the chill audience was - mostly I saw a big "X" on almost everyone's hands - they probably didn't notice, but his voice and style reminded of young Sufjan Stevens before he discovered disco. For tonight's crowd, that would have been roughly while they were in elementary school, though.

Next up was Lucy Dacus (wearing high-waisted jean shorts I'm pretty sure I owned in 1985) whom I'd seen a couple of times before. Tonight she was backed up by 3/4 of the band Manatree, adding a fuller sound and harder edge to her sound, all of which I liked. Relentless drums were chased by guitars and bass while her husky yet strong voice drove it all.

After pummeling us with hard and fast twice, she proved she could go tender and only occasionally strong in the third song and showed her wit with an anthem couched in a little reverb, "I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore."

I don't wanna be funny anymore
I got a too-short skirt, maybe I could be the cute one?

Strong songwriting (lyric: "raised in the era of the milkman") and a distinctive voice (fans of Neko Case would approve) on songs about first love (for the record, she doesn't believe in it) and pillars of truth kept the small crowd inside for every minute of her set.

Telling us it was her Mom's birthday but that she hadn't shown up "Better things to do, I guess"), she then asked a friend to record her and the band as they did a full version of "Happy Birthday" to her Mom with the crowd singing along.

When the crowd called for an encore, Manatree's singer Jack jumped onstage with his band mates. "Looks like my set's been hijacked," Lucy said, surrendering her guitar to him for one Manatree song, which I recognized from having seen them several times.

Part of the crowd moved on at that point, a shame since they missed Boston's Western Den, a quartet of acoustic guitar, keyboards, cello and trumpet with three singers.

"Hi, we're Western Den and we're going to play some really sad folk songs for you," the female singer said. Halfway into the first song, I felt like there should have been lit candles on the stage to complement the mournful horn and ethereal harmonies they were putting out. It had a positively Irish folk sound to it.

If you liked the Romantic poets, this was your band.

A songs like "Eden" began with a hymn first and while I'm as heathen as they come, the three-part harmonies could only be described as heavenly, with just enough echo on the microphone to pretend we were in a castle or garden where the songs were set. They even sang rounds and how often do you hear that beyond childhood and camp?

We learned that the cello player was a recent addition from Los Angeles and that his cello was carbon fiber. By that point, it was tough to imagine what they would have sounded like cello-less because it was such a key piece of their sound.

The guitar player - who also sang some lead vocals- said it was their first time in Richmond. "You guys are so nice here," he gushed. Aw, shucks, we're nothin' but some southerners.

"Tumbling Down" necessitated her saying, "We're not sad people, we just write sad music," before playing a new, unrecorded song ("You heard it here first") and a Saintseneca cover (if you don't know them, look them up"), sounding like a chamber pop take on the Mamas and the Papas if they were just sad and not also obsessed with who was sleeping with whom.

"Desert Grand" was a sumptuous soundscape and their encore song was described as "a very sad folk song" to differentiate it from all the other merely sad ones. The trumpet player left the stage for that song and we learned that he'd recently announced he was leaving the group.

"If you know any trumpet players who sing, send them our way." Yes, do, because the horn works really well with her beautiful voice and expressive hands when she's not playing keys or guitar.

We've got plenty of great trumpet players, but who'd want to give up Richmond for Boston? What I mean is, what musician could afford to give up Richmond for Boston? Do they have $5 shows four blocks from home there?

And while we're checking, do they even have lizards in Boston? Could I be the cute one?

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