It’s always a treat to find a bill shared by three unique and as talented acts. It’s even more of a treat when the show’s intensity builds. There was an arc to this show that, if I were given to hyperbole, could be described as sublime. Because I am not, I will just say that I saw one heck of a show that was at different times (in no particular order): meandering, impressive, exciting, comedic, disappointing, dark, exhilarating, and ultimately really freaking good.
The first band to perform were the DC-based Cedars. Formerly performing and recording under the moniker Cartel, Cedars have been generating a little buzz (not only locally) garnering praise from the likes of Under the Radar.
Stellastarr* + Giant Drag + Cedars
5 Oct 2005: 9:30 Club Washington, DC
“This is our first time at the 9:30 Club… on the Stage anyway” quipped lead singer/guitarist Brian Leatherman at the beginning of the show. You wouldn’t have known it. From the opening notes, melodic, atmospheric guitars filled the 9:30 Club, engulfing all who were lucky enough to arrive early. The second song, “Fleets”, was spellbinding. As Cedars moved fluidly through their set, it was hard not to be taken in by their performance.
Following Cedars was Giant Drag, a band that has, to say the least, a penchant for dark humor. After some cryptic, mildly disturbing jokes about terminal subcutaneous something or other (later clarified as subcutaneous emphysema), Giant Drag launched into “YFLMD”—that’s a shortened, more printable version of the song’s actual title: “You Fuck like My Dad”. The band’s sense of humor can be a little disturbing.
Even more noteworthy was the music. Annie Hardy’s chunky guitar powered its way through the crowd, despite their best efforts to drown the band out (more on that later). Drummer/keyboardist Micah Calabrese skillfully played both drums and keyboards at the same time.
Giant Drag sounds more like an archetypal ‘90s band than most of the two piece acts floating around these days. Their distorted cover of “Wicked Game” sounded a whole lot like I imagine the Breeders would if they covered Chris Isaak.
Unfortunately, it was also during Giant Drag’s set that I had my fist complaint. Now, this may come across all wrong, but bear with me. Stellastarr* are, in my opinion, welcome in Washington, DC whenever they would like to return. But next time I hope they leave the Brooklyn cool kids behind. A more detached and indifferent crowd I have never seen. I know it isn’t Stellastarr*‘s fault that the crowd seemed determined to talk over a band as loud as Giant Drag. This is me venting.
Someone (probably the label) gave Stellastarr* money for this tour, and it was well spent. The stage show was impressive and intense (sometimes too much so). Strobe lights flashed and blue and white light flooded over the crowd, creating an ethereal effect. At times the band seemed to disappear completely behind a wall of light.
My second gripe is actually within Stellastarr*‘s ability to reconcile. The new album Harmonies for the Haunted lacks the energy of their debut. This remains true when its songs are played live. “Damn this Foolish Heart” and “Sweet Troubled Soul” have all the potential to be first-rate concert high points, but somewhere during the recording and performing these songs, the energy was dropped out.
Bassist Amanda Tannen said in a PopMatters interview that the songs on Harmonies for the Haunted are more calculated, “We didn’t let any loose ends go this time, we really went over it with a fine-tooth comb.” It could be that the fine-tooth comb picked some of the best parts out of the music. Of course, this wasn’t entirely the case, “Lost in Time”, was dramatic and filled the club with the same intensity as anything from the old record.
By contrast, songs from the debut exploded from the speakers. “Jenny” was fantastic, as was “In the Walls.” The vocal harmony had been slightly reworked, breathing new life into the song. “Moongirl” was definitely a highlight. Shawn Christensen charged around the stage, while the lights were raging behind the band. The guitars were sailing and the drums pounding. It was really good.
I found myself spending a lot of time watching stage left where bassist Amanda Tannen, stood anchored. And anchor she did. Having seen Stellastarr* perform three times, I have to believe that the wheels would come off without her. I don’t mean to imply that the other members are superfluous; I’m only pointing it out because the bass player rarely gets the credit they deserve.
The show continued to wind, the new songs providing the more subdued moments, the old songs providing the energy. The balance worked well despite a couple of flat moments. The three-song encore began with “Somewhere Across Forever” and wrapped up with the expected, but always enjoyable, “My Coco”.
As my fellow concert goers and I filed out of the 9:30 Club the energy was high. Stellastarr*, along with Cedars and Giant Drag, had all been wildly entertaining and there was still an after hours party at DC9 that was to feature the members of Stellstarr* spinning their favorite obscure, danceable hits. We were pumped.
But I would never make it.
“Where’s your car?”
“You’ve got to be kidding. Was it towed? Maybe?”
“No way. There’s only one empty space on the entire street… where your car was.”
“Goddamnit.” (Followed by a bunch of pacing and staring at the pavement while waiting on hold to file a police report).
Hours pass on the phone and resignation replaces disbelief. I mumble one last “goddamnit” before dragging myself from the curb and into a cab. Oh well, cars are overrated. Besides, I may have lost a car, but I can say that it wasn’t any more of a loss than if I hadn’t made this show.
Okay, maybe I am slightly given to hyperbole.
// Notes from the Road
"Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, brought her Freedom Highway tour to New York for a powerful show. The tour resumes next week and hits Newport Folk later this summer.READ the article