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Califone

(21 Oct 2009: Space Gallery — Portland, ME)

It was a truly ambitious and perhaps unprecedented undertaking. Following the recent completion of lead singer Tim Rutili’s feature film and the subsequent release of the band’s new record and companion piece, both entitled All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, Califone took their monumental show on the road to overwhelm the senses in a two hour live experience that combined the sounds and visions of Rutili. Night after night, the band projected the film in its entirety while providing a live soundtrack, later reappearing for an abbreviated second act set with a handful of songs that spanned their entire catalogue.


Having written soundtracks to experimental films by other directors and directed numerous music videos for his band and famous friends, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers combines Rutili’s skills and marks the release of his first feature length film and accompanying soundtrack. It’s safe to say no one knew what to expect from their recent tour. Even fans that had listened to the album since its release two weeks before could gather little about the film. Anyone with an inkling to investigate any further would only find the official two minute preview on the band’s website. Even after I interviewed Rutili a week before, not much more was revealed.


“There are pieces of the record used in pieces of the film and content-wise a lot of these songs are inner dialogue for some of the peripheral characters in the film,” Rutili noted in our interview. “In a lot of ways working on the script triggered a lot of these songs and a lot of these songs triggered the script. To me they go together as companion pieces.”


Using the tour as motivation for a brief road trip, we left Boston bound for Portland, Maine. New England foliage was reaching its peak and the picturesque highways and byways provided a transitional and transcendental scenic beauty that seemed like the perfect preamble to a Califone performance.


Portland is a strange place. With more bars and restaurants per capita than Boston, you can walk block after block without seeing a single soul—by nightfall the bars are empty and the restaurants are closed. If there’s a show, however, people will be there.


And tonight, those people were at the Space Gallery. They were a motley crew. Not the ones you would figure to fill a Califone show, but despite the various ages and personalities, the true music fans of the city had convened here and overwhelmed the spatial constraints of Space. The gallery did their best to make seats. But even though rows of seating were set up wherever possible, by showtime it seemed obvious the venue couldn’t seat everyone. When the film started rolling, many were left standing in the back while others sat “Indian style” up front.


Since Rutili’s debut feature film won’t see an official release until sometime in 2010 when the movie will make its way through festivals and theaters, tonight was a very special occasion and an exclusive preview for Portland, as it had been for each town along the way. As the lights went down, the picture began with a tiny projection on a small screen dropped from the stage with the band taking its position behind and watching the work backwards on the other side.


From start to finish, Califone guided the movie with multiple layers of textured backgrounds that dwelled heavily on obscure percussion. With plucks, bangs and clangs, the band occasionally drifted into melodic instrumentals and during key sequences they even went into full-length songs from the record.


Beginning with a choppy, sky-high sequence of cloud shots filmed from airplane windows on Super 8 film, Califone began in the background by playing “Salt”, a haunting bluegrass number from their accompanying record, and one of only five songs with words to make their way into the movie. Beautifully shot in vivid color, the film strategically left plenty of open spaces for the accompanying audio that would otherwise be left with dead air. Filling the void, Califone’s haunting background provided a dark fill in each scene, while consciously allowing brief moments of quietude for character dialogue.


It seemed clear that the band had undergone arduous practice sessions. Every noise, no matter how obscure, seemed perfectly timed and thought out. Since the band was lurking behind the screen, the audience was able to focus their attention on the film. And as a testament to their precision, the band’s textural soundscapes were so perfectly aligned with the movie that you often forgot that the band was in-house providing the music.


Unlike the mysterious patchwork word collages of Califone songs, Rutili’s movie isn’t as abstract as the majority of their music. Instead, the film is a flowing narrative that maintains a consistent storyline and adds stylistic flashbacks for character development, all the while retaining that element of mystery that lurks in every Califone song.


Starring Angela Bettis as a psychic and spiritual advisor, the movie follows her character Zel as she deals with daily clients while a group of ghosts occupy her house and keep her company, allowing her business to thrive due to her true connections to the afterlife. Rutili even casts Califone as a trapped funeral music troupe who coexist with the more vocal post-mortem houseguests. Though other characters in the movie bring with them the upbeat eccentric personalities from their living days, Califone members never speak, but instead act as a house band in this mansion of ghosts, and otherwise walk around in a daze like lobotomized patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Though these spiritual roommates play the movie’s tragic heroes, they also provide comic relief, counteracting the movie’s otherwise dark plot.


“It sounds really stupid, but I had a dream about it,” Rutili said about the inspiration for the film. “When I woke up I wrote it down. When I read through it, it seemed kind of ridiculous, but I started writing from there. Before that I started writing songs and I was researching superstitions and collecting them by videotaping people talking about superstitions.”


While watching the film, it was obvious that his fieldwork provided several twists to the film. Separating the movie into parts with certain superstitions driving each scene, those who had recently bought the new record may have realized that the movie’s “chapters” were actually song titles for instrumental tracks on the record. In that way, some of the more astute Califone fans could piece together parts of the mystery.


Synched up in live mastery, Califone played along with the movie to amazement. The sound was mixed so perfectly it felt seamless, as though the band wasn’t even there. But then again, they were. Their live presence and amplification made this art space sound as though it had the THX capabilities of a more high tech theater. But then you realized you were sitting on a plastic chair, and that this was all Califone’s doing. Their sparse instrumentals conjured chills when necessary, and bridged scenes with dramatic transitions. When their controlled chaos culminated into a full song with words, it provided waves of warmth and the overwhelming acknowledgment of this incredible and successful undertaking.


Five lyrical songs made their way into the film. The aforementioned “Salt” started the film. One-third of the way through the movie, the band went through an abbreviated version of “Alice Marble Gray”. Later they played a version of “Ape-like”.  At the climax the band added to the film’s emotional peak by playing the beautiful standout title track “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers”. Soon after, as the credits rolled, and Califone ended with “Evidence”, a devastating ballad that provided the perfect calming to the movie’s dramatic conclusion.


After a well-rounded standing ovation that showed the audience’s universal gratitude and amazement, the band left for a 20-minute break and returned to the stage for a brief Q & A session. Someone asked how they got Angela Bettis to star in the movie, while one astute credits reader asked if that was Tim’s dad that provided transportation. “Yeah, he’s the meanest guy in the world,” Rutili said about his dad. “People would have to listen to his music, his talk radio or his sports on the way down to the house. But he did a great job and the price was right. I think I’ll keep him.”


Quickly breaking back into the music, Califone began with a deep-cut cover of their reworked version of the Psychic TV song, “Orchids”. The track was a spot-on version of one of their standout hits from their previous record, Roots and Crowns. The band continued with “Michigan Girls”, a delicate ballad from Quicksand and Cradlesnakes, and three more tracks from their new record. “Brunel” was an homage to Spanish director Luis Brunel. “Alice Marble Gray”, a song that’s abbreviated version made it into the movie, was given a full-length treatment. And “Giving Away the Bride”, a song Rutili said was about sex, was a lengthy, low-end guitar fuzz noise riff track from the record and a perfect example of Califone’s juxtaposition of distortion-filled anxiety and soothing comedowns. While the first few notes made the onstage speakers poke out to their low-end limits, the song ends with Rutili putting down his secondary fuzz mic and laying down some soothing keys.


The set ended with a standing ovation that didn’t quit. Even after they made their way downstairs to the backstage, and even though the house lights had come on, the band gave a look and a nod to each other and headed back onstage to tackle a stunning rendition of 2001’s “Fisherman’s Wife”, while closing with “Burned by the Christians”, a track that was much more toned down than its recorded version, and vaguely unrecognizable until the chorus.


It was a magical and successful performance that immediately had me thinking “show of the year”, and maybe one of the best complete performances in the past decade. But, I wanted more. So the next day, I headed back to Cambridge to see how Califone’s performance would play out at a proper movie theater, and to see if those feelings held true.


Taking stage at the much more spacious Brattle Theater, the band had the opportunity to have the film projected on a full screen, and unlike the day before, they had plenty of space to set up in front and below the projection.


Keeping the previous night’s performance in mind, the band reaffirmed their precision and intensity in this epic 90 minute set of soundtracking. Perhaps the show tonight may have distracted briefly from the film since you could always turn your attention to the band, but the option of seeing the performance below the screen added an extra touch to the experience. Though it was just a shadow cast beneath the glow of the projection, it was interesting to see the band as they strategically shifted from instrument to instrument to prepare for the next scene. Their eyes always seemed to be on the screen, attentively following along and rarely taking a moments rest.


When this set ended, there was a grand and gracious round of applause, yet no standing ovation. Boston is kind of like that. No one knows why. Maybe it was being in a proper movie theater. Either way, the crowd seemed thoroughly pleased and overwhelmed.


After intermission, the band retook the stage and provided a reorganized set comprised mostly of songs from the night before, but not as many. They began with “Giving Away the Bride”, and followed by offering up another Q & A.


Again, Rutili asked the audience if they had any questions. Somebody from the front row asked, “Do you have any superstitions?” It was me, and it was a question I had wished I had asked during our interview a week before, but it took watching the movie to provoke it. Not one who speaks up from the crowd, I was too awestruck to ask it the night before, but knew I had to at that moment. “Yes, I do,” Rutili said casually. I didn’t press the answer and just assumed it would be left in oblivion.


After a silly follow-up about whether he preferred the Cubs or White Sox, a question typical of Boston audiences, someone yelled out, “What is your biggest superstition?” He didn’t want to tell us. He said he felt like Superman and giving away his superstitions was a superstition in itself. “Give us your top three,’ someone else yelled. Eventually he succumbed to the interrogation. He mentioned putting his hand on the roof of his car as he passed under a bridge even though “it won’t hold up the roof if the bridge falls”. Then he mentioned picking up pennies only if they were heads up. “If they’re tails up, you’re fucked. I know by experience,” he said. He also mentioned every time you notice a digital clock with a 13 in the time, it’s going to be a bad day. “And it’s usually a bad day,” he noted.


After a lengthy discussion on the band’s personal feelings about the subject of the movie, the band broke into “Orchids”, then back to “Michigan Girls”.  For me it progressed like a greatest hits set from a band that doesn’t acknowledge having “greatest hits”. Without a collection of “singles”, the band seemed to play what they wanted, and it just happened to be what I wanted as well.


Opting to conclude the set with more tracks from their most recent record, the band went into “Polish Girls” and ended the set with “Brunel”. Maybe their time had expired, but there was no encore tonight. When the lights went up, people clapped until the band left the stage, then turned and left the building. That was that. And it was a truly amazing experience.

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