It’s Wednesday night in the middle of SF Beer Week, and there’s a sense of alternate realities from the realm of science fiction seeping into the current timeline. Hogwash in Lower Nob Hill is hosting a Star Wars-themed Lagunitas tap takeover complete with an appearance by a lifesize wookie, drawing in a gathering of rebel rogues and would-be Jedi Knights. There’s no band like at the Mos Eisley Cantina, although some of the recordings are piped through. But those seeking live music with a Hollywood twist need only walk a half mile up Sutter Street to catch the artist best known as FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder live in concert at Social Hall SF.
It’s said that the truth can be stranger than fiction and actor David Duchovny probably knows something about that. Duchovny has become a living legend around the world for his iconic portrayal of Agent Mulder on FOX TV’s The X-Files, where he spent a decade from 1993-2002 searching for the truth about aliens, the UFO cover-up and a slew of paranormal phenomena and government conspiracies. The show tapped the dark pulse of the modern zeitgeist like few others have and won Duchovny and co-star Gillian Anderson (as Agent Dana Scully) a legion of lifetime fans.
Pop culture’s affinity for The X-Files surged again in 2016 when Duchovny and Anderson were reunited for a series reboot of six episodes, including a mind-blowing season premiere in which Mulder summed up the entire UFO cover-up in the episode’s opening minutes. With a tagline of “The Truth is Still Out There”, America’s fascination with seeking the truth about UFOs and extraterrestrials was rekindled. Duchovny has done some fine work on other projects too like Californication and his scene-stealing cameo as the world’s greatest hand model in Zoolander, which mined pop culture’s love of conspiracy theories for comic gold.
Then there’s his recent turn as a hard-boiled detective in late ‘60s Los Angeles on the trail of Charlie Manson in the vintage noir of Aquarius. Duchovny’s character Sam Hodiak plays a little bit of acoustic guitar when he’s at home on the show, and this apparently was a direct result of the actor requesting such a character trait, so he could continue trailer guitar lessons he’d started in his last season as Hank Moody on Californication.
Duchovny apparently caught the songwriting bug and cut an entire album, releasing Hell of Highwater in 2015. The album mixes low-key blues and brooding folk rock with flashes of country and alternative and holds together fairly well with its character-driven songs. Now Duchovny has put together a full band to go out and play some shows. His fans can’t wait to check it out as a line forms over two hours before showtime for those who bought the VIP ticket package, of which there were many. And While he’s done excellent work on those other projects, the concept of witnessing the man who plays Mulder live on stage in a rock band seems like it’s what’s providing the buzz here for one of the more unique pop culture moments of recent years.
The band opens with “3000”, utilizing one of the album’s more rocking tracks to kick things off on a high note. Some of the lyrics may seem to rhyme a bit too easily, but when Duchovny sings of “3,000 steps between heaven and hell”, it feels like Fox Mulder is there opening up his soul. “Let It Rain” features a sharp Americana style chord progression with some bluesy leads and Duchovny singing to his low vocal register’s strength.
Some of the slower songs find Duchovny singing in an odd Leonard Cohen-esque drawl that doesn’t seem to suit him as well. The vocals seem a little flat at times during the set, but it’s still interesting to watch an accomplished artist daring to put himself out there in a different realm. Duchovny introduces the new “Strangers in the Sacred Heart” as being about a church where people pray for others instead of themselves, an interesting theme in a crazy world where the gods offer no refunds for over-praying.
A cover of David Bowie’s “Stay” finds the band getting more funky with some stinging blues mixed in and Duchovny with some serviceable vocals. More vibe boosting occurs when Duchovny takes multiple trips out into the audience to give out handshakes, high fives and stir the vibe up ala Buddy Guy playing his guitar out in the audience. It’s a classy move to break down the invisible wall between performer and audience, giving fans a chance to get even more up close and personal.
Duchovny seems somewhat obsessed with the concept of rain on his album, even dropping a “box of rain” line into “The Rain Song” that seems like a nod to the Grateful Dead and trying to find the splintered sunlight that can break through even the darkest clouds (and pictures from the VIP soundcheck session indeed show him sporting a shirt with the Dead’s “Steal Your Face” logo). “When the Time Comes” — introduced as a “post-apocalyptic love song” — mines a similar bluesy Americana sound and both songs feel like they could be coming from a weary Mulder serenading Scully, conjuring an endearing vibe.
Duchovny’s vocal delivery seems to work best on the more up-tempo rocking material, however. This is confirmed in the encore when he and the band break out a surprise rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”. The band plays through the extended introduction, leading to a cathartic breakthrough when they launch into the main progression. The crowd eats it up, especially when Duchovny sings “Me, babe, I’m in a rock n’ roll band”. Then it’s more classic rock goodness with “The Weight”, as Duchovny dons one of the trending pink pussyhats that have become a symbol of solidarity with the feminist movement against the Trump regime’s assault on women’s rights. Another endearing audience sing-along ensues, and it’s been a fun night out at the very least.
Duchovny’s musical soul searching may not hit quite as deep as Mulder’s quest for the truth, but he seems to somehow tap into a similar existential journey.