My once breakneck rock schedule dwindled down to a mere trickle of outings in 2011. There are myriad reasons for this, and I'll hold on to each and every one, because the alternative is to admit that I've gotten old. Although I'm not interested in exploring that idea, similarly troubling is that most of my recent outings have been to see acts that I am already comfortable with. On this particular evening, the promise of seeing a headlining band that I enjoy wasn't even enough – I had to also be lured with the promise of said band joining me for a spirited round of Robert Moore's Rock & Roll Trivia hosted at the bar before the show. I'm beginning to think I'm not old, but just lazy.
Flash forward a few hours where between answering questions about Led Zeppelin and Chubby Checker, I noted the arrival of the opening act. First impressions: they're young, earnest, and fans of tousled hair. When trivia ended (with my team coming in second-to-last due to the ill-advised final wager that I insisted upon), headliner met opener, pleasantries were exchanged, and the opening act began the tedium of set up and sound check.
At 10:20 the three members of Dojo for Crooks began their set. As mentioned, the members of the band are young – still in their teens young – with the project presumably not one with any storied history. I've no empirical data to share concerning the number of gigs the band has played, nor how many of them might have been at the level of Record Bar, but based on the nervous, racing drumming of Jesse Howe, this was likely a big gig for the trio. Things were rough for the first several songs, although once Howe settled down into the one groove he was comfortable with, and the band found its rhythm, everything smoothed out considerably. Ultimately Dojo for Crooks is a modern indie rock band looking to capture the same neo-shoegaze and lo-fi '90s revival as so many other acts. Frontman Braden Anders's vocals are thin and pushed hard; this can be endearing at times, but when the line is crossed, it's regrettable. His guitar tone is curious – thin but heavily processed so as to be neither raw and urgent nor warm and enveloping. Bassist Andy Thies, on the other hand, plays with an impossibly fat and meaty tone. It was as though every instrument was competing with the next for focus and control, and each instrumentalist determined to outshine the rest. For portions of most songs in the band's half-hour set, Thies also played synthesizer. While the ultra-distorted keys were fine for accent hits, when he was charged with holding melody, those same fuzzy notes distracted from good ideas and instincts. Ultimately things ended on a bit of an uptick with a serviceable cover of the slow-burning Tokyo Police Club song "End of a Spark," and an original post-punk rager titled "History."
Throughout the set the band pushed its free merchandise: CD-R demo, t-shirts, stickers, and Frisbees – even going as far as to send a friend (a girlfriend?) through the audience to ensure everyone left with a CD. Anders indicated that this may be the band's last live performance for a while, as it had purchased some recording equipment and planned to self-record an EP in the coming months. He also explained that the band is looking for recommendations as to which songs to record, which spoke volumes about a young band not yet sure of its own musical direction.
The opener's thirty-minute set was followed by thirty-five minutes of administrata as the sound engineer worked through the six-piece headliner. Record Bar's tight scheduling of extra-musical events often does not allow time for a pre-show soundcheck, leaving the audience privy to all the sausage-making. When bass, guitar, violin, drums, both keyboards, and five vocal microphones were all configured, the band began its set. It was 11:25.
While Dojo for Crooks are a young and earnest band with designs on the sound of now, headliners Canasta are quite the opposite. The sextet from Chicago is comprised largely of thirty-somethings with careers rather than jobs. They're all experienced musicians, with firm grasps on their instruments and complete control of their voices. The band's sound can be nominally described as chamber pop, although there is a certain brightness, a certain amount of drama, to its music that leans it closer to capital-P "Pop" than I ever thought I'd be comfortable with. This isn't the sound of now, per se; it's the timeless sound of yesterday, today, and tomorrow too.
Canasta is led by vocalist, bassist, and occasional trombonist Matt Priest. He's got the sort of American good looks and quick, mildly self-deprecating wit that could earn him a spot hosting E!'s Talk Soup. His vocals are strong and dead centre in the mix. To his right stands violinist Elizabeth Lindau. Her vocals blend perfectly with Priest's, and occasionally are called upon to carry the lead. Backing vocals come from both keyboardists (Ryan Tracy and newcomer Sarah Kneebone), as well as guitarist Jeremy Beckford. Only drummer Brian Palmieri is excused from vocal duties.
For those that saw Canasta play at the Riot Room last spring, the sweeping and grandiose elements of this night's performance were familiar. However, while the last show focused on the just-released album The Fakeout, the Tease and the Breather, this set drew evenly from the both of the band's albums. There were no new songs previewed, but near the end of the band's hour-long set, the audience was given a choice of possible covers. By popular vote the band resurrected "The Model" from its first EP. Though the original Kraftwerk composition was built on both dark and cold motifs, Canasta's organic version carried a bit more bounce.
But "bounce" and pop song structures don't entirely define the band – especially on stage where Beckford's guitar is allowed a bit more grit. At these times, when his warm guitar feels grounded more by Americana than baroque pop, the band's entire tone shifts. Specifically Lindau's violin passages are experienced not as symphonic elements, but as assertive replies to a vocal line, as if the violin were playing the role of a harmonica. Sure the band retains the thick multi-part harmonies and brassy trombone lines from its albums, but there is plenty of rock to the band's live show.
As the evening wound down, the band were visibly weary. Palmieri's hand began to cramp up, Lindau's violin slipped out of tune, and Priest's stage dialogue began to fixate on the Herculean overnight drive the band would have to achieve to make it to work the morning. Maybe an exuberant audience could have revived the six-piece, but instead the two dozen Monday night patrons remained seated in club's dark corners. Everyone was worn out.
When the band finished with an unusually subdued "Microphone Song" at 12:25, it was a mad dash for the door. I was glad I only needed to make a 1 mile drive to reach my bed, but I felt guilty about the 500 miles ahead of Canasta. And then I began to feel bad for all the bands, regardless of how far they travel, that put themselves out there on Monday nights, on snowy nights, on nights where they'd rather be in bed, but instead are out playing in front of people in a town they've never given much thought to before. If they can do it, so can I. So here's to 2012, and attending at least one show a month where I've never seen of any of the bands performing. Readers, hold me to this one.