PopMatters Events Editor
If the freak-folk scene was a smoking circle, Devendra Banhart would be the outgoing stoner at the head of the table — the one with big plans who rules the room with non-sequiturs and off-kilter jokes. The THC hits him in a wham-bam fury of ideas and anecdotes, and he’s awfully friendly (if impossible to shut up). Subtlety is not his thing, and quietude is not what he’s seeking. Espers, on the other hand, are the smooth, steady smilers — the guys couched in the corner wearing those ever-subtle grins. Their squinted eyes and silent lips exude a simple wisdom (which they may or may not actually possess). They’re Chong to Banhart’s Cheech (or Teller to his Penn), quietly embracing the moment, courting the high, and developing it in anticipation of some subtle moment of realization. In other words, unlike Banhart, they’re content to sit quietly and snack. And their fans follow suit. As I arrive, pushing haphazardly through the packed bar of Williamsburg’s Lucky Cat, I notice pockets of reserved pseudo-hippy intelligentsia. They’re not brazen in their appearance or in their conversation. They may or may not be stoners, but the members of this rag-tag army are gathered by some intangibly communal spirit. Cross-legged on the floor, they peacefully await the band’s performance. Of course, there’s another journey to be taken before Espers grace the stage, and by all indications, it may harsh some highs. As Polyvinyl act Picastro begins to warm up the crowd (though “warm” isn’t really the right word), singer Liz Hysen drags atonal, Nico-esuqe vocals slowly across sparse guitar, drums, and cello arrangements. She’s got a Grace Slick-like affectation on the edge of her voice and a bad attitude to boot. It’s important to note that “bad” and “badass” are very different adjectives in this case. Hysen sings (and speaks between songs) with an imposed-upon edge that reminds me of the conversations you have when you’ve been roped into the corner of a party by that depressing girl with “problems”. Indeed, as the singer herself explains in a rather laboriously rendered monologue, if people judge a person’s music by their personality, it’s pretty obvious why Picastro isn’t hugely popular. Still, the band manages a few impressive (if moody) numbers, layering noisy, and off-key bows and plucks on the cello — which the sound-man at one point nervously mistakes for a short in the PA speaker — with simple acoustic melodies. It’s pleasing in its similarity to the music of bands like Quix*o*tic or Young People, but retains less of the dark, sexy edges that make those acts so intriguing.
As if excited to start tromping on the ashen nest of Picastro’s fire-charred phoenix, a group of dirty looking kids emerge. Greg Weeks, Espers’ main mouthpiece, is a squirrelly, skinny fellow wearing a pair of striking black glasses that out-define his other features. Sitting on a stool Meg Baird, the group’s female singer, crosses her leather-booted legs and balances an acoustic guitar on her lap. The cellist (yes, both acts tonight have cellists) sits quietly, her hair meticulously teased into a staticy, electrocuted halo that would leave Coheed and Cambria’s crew with mouths agape. Nary a word is spoken as the band begins to play. Acoustic guitars fall across full-bodied bows of cello. Weeks interjects muddy acid-guitar licks, but doesn’t exactly lead the jam. Instead, he lets things between the players flow freely, allowing them to develop their own steady dynamics. No one on stage seems rushed (or all that engaged for that matter). They bop their heads as the notes fall lightly in succession and a small age passes. I’m watching, waiting, hoping for a moment of actualization, but the development is so slow that by the time I notice it, whatever minor glory the band was working towards has already passed. This isn’t jam music, and it certainly isn’t psychedelic or acid fare. It’s neo-acid-folk, with a focus on acoustic melodies and soft, fey vocals. Instead of careening along like more in-your-face psychedelic acts — Acid Mothers Temple, for instance — the band’s peaks don’t stray too far above their valleys. They don’t so much take you on a journey as plop you at a destination. Or at least that’s what they do in theory. As it is, the whole thing sounds pretty hippy-dippy to me, their live presentation uneven. As I watch the band’s motions and hear their 10-minute odysseys unwind, I begin to feel like I’m doing something wrong. Does this suck or am I just not tuned in? Should I have gotten stoned? I try closing my eyes, and letting the noises float over me — around me. I seize my mind and direct it to take up its own meanderings, pushing the music into a more tangential space. Minutes pass, songs wander, and a sleepy trance finally sets in. Almost as soon as it comes it’s broken by the clapping of hands and the bowing of heads. A half-hour has passed, and the band’s set is over. But that’s okay because I’ve figured something out. Espers aren’t trying to freak folks out and that you don’t have to do drugs to enjoy them. What you have to realize is that they won’t come to you the way Banhart does, with odd antics and outrageous anecdotes. You have to go to them, ready to hang out amicably on the couch. If you do they’ll caress you comfortably into a warm, mellow place. The key is to come bearing Cheetos.