How much farther could you possibly get from the lazy, sun-drenched California of Beulah than New York’s gritty, gray, and grimy Bowery? Though not quite the same neighborhood celebrated for its seediness by Reed and Ramone, Beulah’s palmtree and beach sunset backdrop nevertheless seems somewhat incongruous from the Chinese restaurants and flophouse hotels that line the streets outside the venue.
On this night, however, the band is nobly attempting to recreate their brilliant but ambitious album The Coast Is Never Clear, their ambivalent ode to their home state. Financial and logistical constraints being what they are, though, the sound of the album’s no less than 24 musicians is being fleshed out with a comparatively barebones line-up of two guitars, bass, and drums as well as two keyboardists. Second guitarist Bill Swan admirably doubled as trumpet player on nearly every song and at times even elicited mid-song applause from the non-horn accustomed audience. Tracks such as soaring set opener “Gravity’s Bringing Us Down” from the current album inevitably lost some of their depth in the translation from studio to stage, but by the anthemic “Disco: The Secretaries Blues” from Beulah’s debut, Handsome Western States (in which the number of musicians on stage is more than twice that on disc), the tracks fared considerably better. Rather than trying to replicate each and every note of their more recent work, they have instead presented a leaner and somewhat more energetic version of their albums—“Popular Mechanics for Lovers” without banjo and pedal steel, “A Good Man Is Easy to Kill” without flute and violin. For a listener not familiar with the recorded versions, though, one couldn’t help but feeling that the tracks would tend to lose their individuality but were hopefully enjoyable nonetheless.
Affable leader Miles Kurosky repeatedly turned down requests citing not lack of interest but ability. “We’re self-professed mediocre musicians—and proud of it.” They did, however, indulge us in (what is apparently fast becoming a Beulah tradition) a cover of a New York band. For supposedly the only night of the tour, Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” closed the set right after The Coast Is Never Clear’s lead-off tracks “Hello Resolven” and “A Good Man Is Easy to Kill”. Kurosky punctuated the song with a self-conscious yet heartfelt pogo after finally being freed from the constraints of guitar playing. The band took the stage for their first encore to the strains of When Your Heartstrings Break’s epic “Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand” breaking into their dual guitar and trumpet riffs after nearly two minutes of uncharacteristic synth noodling. “Lay Low for the Letdown” saw Kurosky invite ten fans on stage to join in on vocals, various percussive noisemakers, and general dancing around like awkward white kids. The effect, while undoubtedly well intentioned, was more akin to watching a junior high class wreak havoc with a karaoke machine—and I wish I meant that in a good way. After an additional few songs the band again left the stage only to begin a second encore with the lo-fi “Dig the Subatomic Holdout #2”.
Beulah’s show served to reinforce what their amazing album they are touring in support of asserted seven months earlier—that Miles Kurosky is not only capable of crafting intricate and affecting songs but that his band is able to interpret them in inventive ways. With their live shows, they have managed to make those same songs work in an altogether different environment, eschewing the belief that richly orchestrated music is solely the province of expensive recording studios. For a band that has at times been accused of looking to its heroes for too much inspiration, it is a relief that they have not taken those same heroes’ reclusive habits to heart.