It's important to get this down before the memory fades. Although this show had a disappointing turn out, the touring bands showed up late, the audience were confused (at best) by Freeball, and all bands took too long to set up, it did contain the best performance I have seen this year.
Freeball arrived a little after 6pm and started loading their gear onto the stage. It's an complicated collection of a keyboards, props, sequencers, PA gear, a bass guitar, and a melodica (like a harmonica but with a keyboard, remember The Hooters?). When I told the band it was time to play, they plugged in their luminescent "F R E E B A L L" backdrop and then walked out the front door of the club. When they returned a moment later, they had become some sort of dynamic duo of sick American superheros from a comic book rejected years ago. Keyboardist/vocalist Tijuana Viper wore a Raggedy Ann dress made from an American flag which he trumped by wearing a Mexican wrestler's mask. Bassist/melodica player/occasional screamer A.C. Galore wore an Uncle Sam inspired unitard with open shoulders accented by a mohawk skull cap (which I think was a bathing cap that he glued a carpet sample onto). The audience responded appropriately.
So with a cheap Casio beat pumping through the PA, pitch shifted nonsensical vocals, and a melodica player marching around the stage in an outfit that clung to his lanky body (and answered any questions you may have about the band's name), Freeball's set had begun. The well dressed emo audience looked on in disbelief prompting A.C. Galore to clarify "This isn't our first show, we've been playing around this town for three years." And they have, just in basements, dining rooms and VFW halls, well below these indie rockers' radars.
But underneath the psychotic circus that is Freeball, there is an undeniable musical ability. Tijuana Viper is an excellent keyboardist and the way they are able to wind bass lines through the keyboard parts is real musical genius. However Freeball hadn't found their crowd at the El Torreon (and they wont until they play with The Frogs) and only a dozen folks gave their full attention to the band.
A long set change followed as Freeball loaded off their gear and Aloha brought theirs on stage and soundperson Alison began to mic the band's gear. The band warned me that soundmen hate them as they are picky about their monitors, I warned them that their soundperson is in a band called Sister Mary Rotten Crotch. I think they became less picky, and at the end of their set they told her it was the best sound they had had all tour.
Cleveland's Aloha are a standard three piece with a fourth member on vibraphone, and give all outward appearances of predictable being emo band, maybe with a bit of hectic nature to them -- one member did have some piercings. However I missed the mark as the band were largely jazz as filtered through contemporary indie rock, a little heavy on the shoe gazing and with a dash of emo tossed in.
The band kept their long set interesting with changing rhythms and a focus on their excellent vibes player, Eric Koltnow, who employed the four mallet technique learned in a band class that I'm sure he thought would never pay off. The melody was carried by vibes in most songs while guitarist/vocalist Tony Cavallario played simple (and repeated and repeated) chords. His vocals seemed nervous and while he sang he often would adjust the microphone between every phrase out of habit. Once you noticed it, it was pretty comical. The band as a whole must have been nervous as they spent the majority of the time facing the back of the stage which I've always found annoying. Because of this lack of stage show, and the chill out nature of their music, I think I would have preferred to listen to the band at home in my easy chair rather than standing in El Torreon.
Bright Eyes from Omaha set up a stageful of gear for nearly the last time in their current six week tour (one that took them through the area three times). And unlike the nervous first show when the assembled band members were still learning the songs and each other, the band looked very relaxed and comfortable sitting in chairs on stage. The audience members took that as a cue and drug over chairs and benches for themselves I didn't bother as the band generally plays only a twenty minute set.
On this tour the live band consists of Conor Oberst on vocals, acoustic guitar and occasional keyboards, a bassist, drummer, keyboardist and Mike Mogis (from Lullaby for the Working Class) playing steel guitar, mandolin and vibes. After six weeks this line-up has really gelled and their performance was the perfect mix of tight precision and loose heart. In fact this band seems to play the songs much better than the studio band which recorded the new album being promoted. This was important since the setlist was largely built around that CD with only one older song (Padraic My Prince) thrown in.
Complimenting the direct nature of Conor's songs and the attentive arrangements and instrumentation of Mike Mogis, was the great sound in the club. Every note played and nuance of Conor's quiet wavering voice rang through as the band played one sorrowful song after another. Occasionally a song would get Conor and the rest of the band so riled up that they would wiggle around in their chairs, pushing to get the energy from their entire body out through their instruments. Conor's whole body would shake as he sang during these intense moments and the look of complete pain on his face was positively captivating and contagious. During Sunrise, Sunset his vocals swelled to a cathartic shout and my stomach began to feel hollow, and after the song was done I looked over in time to watch a friend brush away the tears. It was that penetrating.
Conor's lyrics have always been good, however now they are generally less obvious and so much smarter. He says so much with so little and his use of internal rhyme and odd vocal phrasings is awesome. He is able to write rhyming poetry and have it seem conversational, making it seem like those are the words the people would really use to speak, and they just happen to rhyme. In the last year his lyrical genius has been encroached upon by the expressiveness of his fingered guitar style. The chords and notes he plays (and doesn't play) say so much, and even before a word has been sung, the message of each song has already been conveyed.
The band played a long set, nearly twice as long as usual, and for the first time in years when a band finished their set, I wished they would play more. A long (again the longest I've heard at El Torreon) round of applause thanked the band for their set and then the club went silent. There was just nothing else to be said, Conor had said it all and thus most of the audience walked out in silence contemplating the experience. There really aren't superlatives to describe Bright Eyes live.