At 7:30 I slipped through the Beat Kitchen's front door, paid my $10, and headed directly for the back room where I discovered a dozen kids already sitting on the floor in front of the stage. When two gals got up to check out the merch table, I snagged their stage-side spot, pulled out my Palm Pilot and began a game of Scrabble in an effort to pass the fifteen-minute wait before the first act.
At 7:45 Renee-Louise Carafice climbed on stage wearing a revealing gold lam tube dress, mismatched socks, and white high-top Converse All-Stars markered with the word "love" on the right toe and "hate" on the other. She sat down behind a keyboard – behind several keyboards actually – and, after winding a novelty birdcage to produce chirping noises, began a six-song set of hauntingly beautiful experimental folk.
Carafice hails from New Zealand but currently calls Chicago home. She has a curious accent full of elongated vowels that sounds confusingly Northern European. Carafice was visibly nervous and was quick to point out that she is normally backed by a seven-person band, but – out of necessity – was trying something new tonight. She worried the wrong button pressed could cause disaster. There was no disaster. And at the end of each song, the two-dozen or so folks in the audience would erupt in applause leading Carafice to smile broadly and genuinely.
Carafice's music was performed largely on a single keyboard that provided both the piano and organ tones used throughout the night. One song was performed on a borrowed Fender Stratocaster; another called for a second keyboard and accents from a borrowed high-hat cymbal struck with a soft mallet. Programmed beats typically kept the sound full and rich, though occasionally piano alone provided all the interest needed. This was the case with "Sam #2" a delightfully candid song that recalled the direct and confessional nature of Leonard Cohen. So yeah, heavy on the folk, just a little freak. Just the way I like it.
Next up was The Donkeys – a Southern California quartet (touring as a quintet) that treads in a breezy rock sound composed of equal parts country and psych. Despite the band's indie aesthetic and methodology, musically the band recalls classic rockers like The Grateful Dead and The Band. And in spite of what common sense would suggest, young audiences are just eating this sound up.
The Donkeys is fronted by bassist (and occasional guitarist) Tim DeNardo, with vocals from drummer Sam Sprague, guitars from Jessie Gulati, and keyboards (typically a Fender Rhodes) by Anthony Luken. Touring acoustic guitarist Alex deLanda is present for about half of the band's live material. Although the genre doesn't do much for me, each of the players seems supremely talented. The galloping bass lines of DeNardo are only trumped by his expertise as a guitarist (case in point: the brilliant lyrical guitar lead presented in the instrumental closer "Lower the Heavens"). Gulati showed himself to be no slouch as well, with several extended guitar solos tossed in through the set. With the exception of Gulati, all players provided vocals at one point or another, and often simultaneously in tight harmonies.
When The Donkeys had completed its set, the players simply walked off stage, leaving their instruments in place. As with previous tours, the band would also serve as Owen Ashworth's backing band to create a live version of Casiotone For the Painfully Alone. This is a dangerous mission. CFTPA is a bedroom pop project created with computers and electronics by one man. Songs are intimate and confessional (though sometimes more literary than autobiographical), and illicit strong connections with its audience. For many fans, any CFTPA that isn't whispered directly into their earphones is phoney. Following, when Ashworth performs his songs in a live setting, necessary changes are so monumental that they toy with the songs' integrity. It should go without saying that songs performed with a live band require changes that approach sacrilege.
Of course these extreme views are held by small subset of devoted fans – frighteningly devoted fans. The fans that sat on the floor playing clapping games between bands. The fans that spent the whole of The Donkey's set sitting with their backs again the stage, facing the rear of the club, and playing with their glowing cell phones. It wasn't until Ashworth had completed his set up, and tapped the microphone, that the group came to attention. Did I mention that this was an all-ages show?
Ashworth began his set with four or five songs performed with sequenced beats, mostly-live keyboards, and live vocals. During instrumental breaks, Ashworth would spin a dial or two adding indiscriminate live noise. Songs that sounded thin, lo-fi, and personal on my iPod, sounded thin, lo-fi and amateur when presented live. Maybe the devoted fans had something after all.
Soon, The Donkey's were invited back up, and songs were given a further re-imagining. This one was spot on. Obviously songs were fuller than those performed by Ashworth alone, but they were also more grandiose than the recorded versions. Is it possible that a The Donkeys-infused CFTPA is better than the original electronic version? It's certainly possible.
Surprisingly, I didn't recognize many songs throughout the set. I suppose I don't listen to the older albums that much. I was happy to hear "New Years Kiss," "Nashville Parthenon," and "Cold White Christmas" from the most recent album, but was sad that fan-favourite "Toby Take a Bow" was overlooked. The band closed with a disappointing track sung by The Donkeys' Anthony Luken, but Ashwoth was coaxed back out for a quick one-song encore that ended the show properly.
As the underage fans were rushed out of the bar, I stopped at the crowded merch table to look for an album by Renee-Louise Carafice or to even sign her mailing list. I found neither. Certainly keep your ears open for a new CTFPA album (as each release trumps the previous one) but also look for a recorded debut from Renee-Louise Carafice – she's something quite special.