North Sea Story, a Brooklyn-based trio,
took the stage after Son, Ambulance finished its set (thatís right,
Ambulance has changed its name to Son, Ambulance for reasons I didn't
catch). It was the first time I've ever seen a Sokol crowd sit in orderly
rows on the floor, about six or seven rows deep from wall to wall like a
kindergarten class during show-and-tell. They craned their necks to the
sparsely lit stage while the band played its own, unique brand of
dirge-like rock that had that same underwater hang-dog feel as, say,
dronemasters Bedhead or Low, but without those two bands' wonderful
dynamics or melodies. North Sea Story's formula: Start slow with a rolling
bassline that repeats, repeats, repeats; add either a wonky-sounding
angular guitar line or a fuzzy drone, then top it off with an off-key,
warbling lead singer's depressing suicide vigil lament. Three-quarters of
the way through the song, light-up the guitars and kick things in motion
(in other words, rock out), but then go back to the dirge before the
closer. Now, repeat that same formula five or six times until your
audience either falls asleep or gets up to grab a beer.
Things took a 180-degree turn for the better with Her Space Holiday.
The brainchild of AudioInformationPhenomenon label owner Marc Bianchi, the
band consisted of Bianchi and his girlfriend, Keely, sitting on stage
behind sets of keyboards that played everything from looped guitar lines
to rhythm tracks to deep orchestral tones. The lush, moody, resonance
blended with Bianchi's vocals in sort of a Jesus and Mary Chain meets Disintegration-era
The Cure. The rich, dense music more than made up for a stage show that
consisted of two people playing keyboards while one sang into a
microphone. The crowd was too mesmerized to notice, or care.
Last but not least was Bright Eyes. By now, no one was sitting except
the band's leader, Conor Oberst, who always seems to perform seated these
days, surrounded by four other musicians who switched instruments between
Oberst opened with an acoustic song -- just him and his guitar -- and
emoted as only he can, pouring his heart out on stage, always bent over
his ax, never looking up at the crowd or through the dark brown bangs that
covered half his face. In his early days as a performer -- just a couple
years ago, actually -- Oberst's vocals came in two emotional flavors:
Either his trademark throaty, choked-up whimper/whine or his
angry-young-man bombast. Both grab your attention as if you're
eavesdropping on a stranger's private confessions. You want to turn away,
but you can't. Oberst demands that you stop and listen and try to
understand what's bothering him, whether you want to or not.
These days, you'll want to. While his early recordings relied entirely
on his unique pathos to cover up his unsure instrumental abilities, Oberst
has since blossomed into a full-fledged singer-songwriter who has the
chops to match his writing skills that, at times, transcend anything
you're likely to hear on your car radio on the way to work.
Oberst and company performed most of their recent Saddle Creek Records
release, Fevers and Mirrors, including "Haligh, Haligh, A Lie,
Haligh," "The Calendar Hung Itself," and "The Movement
of a Hand." In fact, other than the opener and one or two other
songs, Oberst spent a lot of time behind a keyboard rather than a guitar.
Meanwhile, the band filled out the sound impressively, with instruments
ranging from a vibraphone to keyboards to guitar.
Diehard fans got a sneak preview of a couple new songs, including one
from an upcoming Bright Eyes/Ambulance split CD that continues in the same
tradition of his earlier work -- in other words, Conor sounds as heartsick
as ever. But isn't that part of the guy's appeal?