Too Much Rock
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Friday November 4th, 2005 at The MFA in Boston, MA
Bell Orchestre, & Clogs
Stef Schneider, Sarah Neufeld, and Richard Reed Parry of Bell Orchestre
Kaveh Nabatian and Pietro Amato of Bell Orchestre
Thomas Kozumplik and Padma Newsome of Clogs
[more photos]
[19M mp4 video]

Have you ever seen an indie rock show at a museum? I have, and I heartily recommend it. Let's explain the perks: You have a seat – and you can see the stage from it. Bright but defused lighting allows you to clearly see the band. It's not insanely loud. It's not smoky or smelly. No one spills beer on you. The sound is immaculate. And no one talks through the show because everyone is there for the music – not merely to be seen, to be social, or to get drunk. Sure the ticket price is a bit steep, and photographing from midpoint of the sloped auditorium isn't very intimate, but, given the option, I think museum shows are the way to go.

Of course not every show is suited for such a venue. Seeing Turbonegro in a museum would clearly be wrong; however, seeing Clogs and Bell Orchestre in a museum is a natural fit. In fact, it's hard to imagine them performing in a rock club at all. How would that even work?

Brooklyn-based Clogs is a quartet of classically trained musicians. The band is led by guitarist Bryce Dessner and violist Padma Newsome and augmented by Rachael Elliott on bassoon and Thomas Kozumplik on percussion. The band's degrees, experiences, awards and accomplishments are vast, impressive and a bit pretentious. As one would expect from this assemblage of Musicians, the band's music is sophisticated but, thankfully, never distant. Like the finer moments from The Dirty Three, songs are emotional and immediately embraceable. While moods may be similar to that of post-rock behemoths Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Clogs' compositions are shorter, with less developed themes and lacking (for the better in this case) the explosive climaxes. While Louisville's Rachels are another relevant touchstone, Clogs' music comes from a much broader pallet, and often incorporates elements of the horribly mislabeled world music genre.

The band closed with a haunting song entitled "Lantern" about the lighthouse in Newsome's hometown in Australia. This song featured Newsome's elongated, trebly, tenor lilt and served as the only vocal of the evening. While one might expect the sudden addition of vocals to be jarring, Newsome's vocals meshed perfectly with the buoyant instrumental lines present in the song, attracting much less attention then might have been expected. In fact, the vocals in this song made me search my memory to realize there were no vocals in the previous compositions. The band's music has many instrumental lines contributing to a strong sense of melody; vocals are simply not needed.

Clogs' set did not so much end as simply float back down to earth. After a few moments of absolute silence, audience applause began rolling in, culminating in a standing ovation. The band bowed in recognition and left the stage. An encore from an opener is a long shot, but the audience continued to call for one. Soon Dessner – followed by the rest of the band – returned to the stage, to great cheers. Unamplified and sheepish, Dessner announced that the band only returned to get its instruments off the stage. Oh yeah, there was still the headliner.

Actually, no matter how wonderful Clogs may have been, the audience had not forgotten the headliner. In fact, most were present only to see Bell Orchestre – or, to be more precise, to see the members of Bell Orchestre that also perform in critics' darlings The Arcade Fire. How else could one explain a sold out auditorium of indie rockers electing to sit through an alcohol-free Friday evening of neo-classical music?

Of course Bell Orchestre is more than The Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry (upright bass) and Sarah Neufeld (violin). The quartet also features very capable musicians: Stefan Schneider (drums), Kaveh Nabatian (trumpet), and Pietro Amato (French horn). While each member has some background in classical music, Bell Orchestre's approach is decidedly more rock when compared to that of Clogs. Bell Orchestre's song structures develop quickly with sparse instrumentation, then each instrument joins the fray as the cycle repeats. There aren't the pop elements of choruses and verses, but themes are revisited frequently. The band is afraid of neither chaos nor rock band volumes. That isn't to say that Bell Orchestre is always brutish; the delicate "Typewriter Duet" brought Schneider from behind his drum kit to center stage with a manual typewriter. His pecking was accompanied by the plucked strings of Parry's bass and the lonesome strands of Neufeld's violin. When the typewriter reached its right margin, its delicate bell resonated throughout the hall, eliciting titters from the focused audience. This tiny nuance was atypical though: full sweeping gestures are much more common in the band's compositions. Accordingly, Neufeld's delicate strokes were also an aberration, since she generally sawed at her violin as violently as if she were competing in one of the fiddle contests she is rumoured to have won as a child.

Despite the pristine performance conditions, Bell Orchestre's live performance was markedly different than that on its debut album Recording a Tape the Colour of Light. In the studio, the quintet's compositions rely heavily on xylophones or other secondary percussion instruments; while Schneider was able to play these parts occasionally, they were often ignored entirely in the live setting. Similarly, second-choice live instruments (typically French Horn) were required to carry the melody of songs that initially featured organs or other keyboard instruments. This meant some of the most engaging work on the album, such as "Salvatore Amato," simply could not be played live.

Thankfully there was enough theatre in the band's performance to replace the album's lost nuances. The audience, however, could not have been aware of what they were missing – not only was Recording a Tape the Colour of Light unreleased at the time of the concert, but, more importantly, the audience had made up its mind about the band long before a note had been played.

The show ended sweetly and without fanfare. The audience didn't hoot for an encore, and the band didn't hold out for one. Best of all there was no overzealous soundman pulsing the stage lighting to encourage rhythmic clapping or stomping. The performance was simply over. The audience realized this without the "aid" of a sudden blinding change in lighting or a jarring musical shift from the PA. Each of us simply gathered our belongings, made our way to the aisles, and civilly walked out of the auditorium. I'll say it again: I think museum shows are the way to go.