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Friday October 19th, 2012 at Record Bar in Kansas City, MO
Balmorhea, & Sounding the Deep
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If ever there was a night out where it felt like a night in, this would be it. At 10:15 the three members of Kansas City's Sounding the Deep began their set with such a quiet hush, that the audience didn't immediately catch on. When they did, they pulled up chairs, sat down, and politely sipped their drinks. If the lights would not have been so low, I imagine patrons would have pulled out their knitting, or opened up their books. This isn't to say the band is bad, but rather it never demands attention from the audience. Compositions begin slowly, meander pleasantly, then end. The trio of musicians that comprise the band offer similarly steady performances, with few physical movements, and certainly no semblance of a stage show.

Through its history, this long-running instrumental project of guitarist David Williams has toed into both the drone and ambient genres. Today, as a trio featuring drummer Mike Vera and double bassist Zack Kauffman, the band has nosed into post-rock territory as well. Williams alternated between a worn acoustic guitar, and a wide-necked classical guitar, but in both cases, his quiet fingering was exquisite, and offered a thoughtful balance of technical precision and warm tone. Kauffman offered neither rhythm or melody, but instead a slow, low hum that he bowed in and out almost unnoticed. With few exceptions (though all of them notable) Vera remained quiet and restrained, softly tapping cotton-muted mallets on his drum, or creating washes by running his brushes across the large, hanging, textured cymbal that he sat in front of.

The band's 35-minute, eight-song featured six songs from its most recent album, Return to the Quiet (Sonic Meditations, 2012), including the set's closing number, the comparatively raucous "Like Ravens." While this final number honoured the established post-rock rules concerning the arc of its various movements, most of the set's tumbling guitar lines never led the listener anywhere. Thankfully, the seated fans were happy to remain stationary while the band enveloped them in a warm, sonic blanket.

When the Austin-based headliners Balmorhea took the stage, I expected the energy level to rise, however, the audience was already tucked for the night. With a small copse of standing fans to my right, the vast majority of the audience seated in chairs behind me, and a couple seated on the ground to my left, I trained my camera on the six band members and the small stage that they dwarfed.

Continuing the not-quite post-rock theme set forward by the openers, Balmorhea offer a more organic approach to the genre. Again, dismissing the established arcs, the band builds upon a pop base instead, with shorter songs, and – while not exactly choruses – occasional thematic returns.

The immutable core of the band is comprised of guitarist Michael Muller, Rob Lowe on piano and guitar, and drummer Kendall Clark. Together they set the tone for each song, before releasing it to the remaining players where the song's ultimate destiny lies. One option utilised a string section comprised of Aisha Burns on violin, Dylan Rieck on cello, and Travis Chapman on double bass, not to create epic orchestral swells, but to bow and pluck en route to rounded, melody-rich folk and Americana. Another option scattered those players about the stage, reassigned them to keyboards to create a pulsing, oddly mechanical sound that recalled the Athens, Georgia band Maserati. A third option utilized the multi-instrumentalists on electric bass and acoustic guitar, allowing the band to stretch and explore the boundaries of traditional indie rock similar to the work of Tortoise. In all configurations there were thoughtful uses of volume, few explosions, and no bursts of chaos. Eschewing lyrics entirely, various band members did use their heavily processed voices (particularly in the case of Burns) as ghostly instruments that drifted in and out of focus.

In keeping with the night's curiously quiet mood, stage banter was kept to a minimum, players only moved about the stage to get from one instrumental station to another, and applause from the moderately-sized, still-seated, audience was kept polite. After an hour-long set that drew heavily on the band's just-released album, Stranger (Western Vinyl, 2012), Balmorhea simply thanked the audience and said goodnight. At that point, both the house lights and music eased up slowly, audience members moved to the band's merchandise table in the back of the club, and I packed up my camera for a quick ride home. Some shows I leave battered and exhausted, others energized and inspired, but this one I left feeling calm and soothed. That doesn't happen often, and I wouldn't want all shows to leave me that way, but it's very nice to have a low-impact night out occasionally.