There is quite a bit of buzz surrounding Portland, Oregon’s Blind Pilot. The core band is originators Israel Nebeker (singer/guitarist) and Ryan Dobrowski (drums) but the project can balloon up to nine members, comprising a down-tempo, folk answer to Canadian musical collective Broken Social Scene. Pilot’s album, 3 Rounds and a Sound, was named best debut of 2008 by Seattle’s influential KEXP radio and NPR championed the band all year, naming them one of the best new bands of 2008. The group also found time to appear on Carson Daly in between touring the West Coast on bicycles. Arriving in Chicago in support of 3 Rounds and a Sound, Blind Pilot was sandwiched between singer/songwriter Sam Lowry and headliner Langhorne Slim, and for such a buzz-worthy band, the second slot seemed odd. However, as Blind Pilot took the stage and smiled modestly, it became clear that the group has nothing to prove, and are content to simply play their heartfelt, folk pop to anyone who will listen.
From my vantage point, it was hard to determine exactly how many band members had filled the small, crowded stage. Front and center was Kati Claborn (banjo, mountain dulcimer, vocals) whose sweet, dulcet vocals, sounding like a less world weary Lucinda Williams, paired nicely with Nebeker. With upright bass, vibraphonist, and the addition of Dave Jorgensen on trumpet, who lurked in the wings like a phantom, the songs of 3 Rounds were brought to life with a rich, full sound. One of the album highlights, and the song making the most buzz on radio, “One Red Thread” came and went without much notice from the crowd. The tricky thing about the band, and 3 Rounds, is that both are so amiable and free of pretension that it’s nearly impossible to vehemently dislike the songs or performers. There was never a moment of excitement or the unexpected. The entire show was simply a quiet recital by performers who seem to have no ambition towards superstardom or anything that might distract from the music.
As the venue filled to capacity, it became glaringly obvious that most were waiting in anticipation of headliner Langhorne Slim, but the band soldiered on with modest smiles and appreciative nods. Nebeker, whose sincere, strong vocals recall a Pneumonia-era Ryan Adams, did not do much to engage the crowd, and song transitions were cricket quiet. Nebeker’s lyrics, free of any bile or heartache, deal mostly with friendship, love, and travel—and lack an engaging narrative flow. With a short, forty-five minute set, the band was able to squeeze in most of the tracks from 3 Rounds, and with a formula never straying far from an Iron and Wine meets Shins sensibility, many of the songs blended together without much distinction.
The band cites Neutral Milk Hotel as one of their major inspirations, but none of the sonic bombast or lyrical insanity is present. For now, Blind Pilot lurks in an undistinguished gray area between alt-country and indie folk, and the show did not do much to transcend the bland into the memorable. The entire group seemed nervous, but for a band on their first US tour, that is forgivable. One of the best moments came towards the end of the set when Claborn sang lead vocals for a cover of obscure folk singer and labor organizer Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails”. The gritty lyrics about literally being sprayed by a shotgun filled with rock salt and nails, and the tricky arrangement, were handled well by Claborn and Co. and did not feel gimmicky or insincere. It leads me to believe that there is some real grit and darkness lurking underneath the superficial pleasantries of Blind Pilot, and hopefully they will put some of that nastiness to use on the next album.