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Tuesday August 30th, 2005 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA
Engine Down, Bella Lea, & Harris
Keely Davis of Engine Down
Jonathan Fuller of Engine Down
Maura Davis of Bella Lea
Mike Nastri of Harris
[more photos]
[10.4M mp4 video]

Note: Sorry not much time for a fleshed out account here, there's just enough time to give you the rundown on the bands:

Even though Harris had been tapped at the last minute to fill in for the advertised-but-unavailable openers Des Ark, there seemed to be no disappointment among the early arrivers in the audience. After announcing this last minute change, vocalist/bassist Mike Nastri set his band into a new song from their forthcoming album. Harris' music occupies a fuzzy space that is part quirky indie rock, part energetic hardcore, and part poppy emo. With love-'em-or-hate-'em vocals, random keyboard plinks, guitars that seldom align and a propensity for long compositions with wonted "this is where we go crazy" parts, the band has defined its sound, is comfortable with it, and presents it matter-of-factly for the audience. This isn't to say that the band isn't into the performance; each song makes time for guitarist Jon Day to swing his Fender about wildly, often forcing him to play behind his head when the guitar's arc reaches its apex. Similarly, Matt Scott's Gibson is throttled tightly as he stomps, hops, arches his back, and kicks through fits of, what can only be hardcore possession. Although Nastri is often a part of these expected momentary meltdowns, he was tentative on this night. Throughout the set it seemed as though Nastri was paying undue attention to his vocals, and entirely forgetting about his audience. I imagine this is a carryover from the recording studio where Harris has hid out for most of the year. This preoccupation also carried through to the band's 45-minute setlist, which featured only two previously released songs. While past audience favourites such as the aggro "Burn this Mother Down" were skipped in favor of new tunes such as "Origami" (a song aptly titled due to its never-ending complicated folds of music), the band did relent with signature crowd-pleaser "Literal." Harris ended with a sprawling nine-minute opera that somehow included every musical element known, yet remained focused enough to become the high point of the band's set. Hopefully both music and performance will align when Harris headlines the Middle East on Friday October 14th for its CD release party.

While the members of Harris removed their gear from the stage, the audience crept forward in anticipation of Bella Lea's set. Even though most of the audience had never heard Bella Lea and the band has not yet recorded an album, the fact that Maura Davis, formerly of Denali, fronts Bella Lea had not gone unnoted. The similarities between the bands are striking due in part to the fact that 3/4s of Bella Lea toured as Denali last year. Like Denali, Bella Lea's songs are full and rich with a stifling depth to them. The set began with Davis on piano accompanied by her full band. This song made it immediately clear that Bella Lea would be defined by Davis’ voice. She's not an exceptionally strong vocalist, and her tone and timbre recall a host of similar artists from the alternative music world, but there is a palpable intensity to her performance. This earnest and exposed opening piano ballad sent the more sensitive and impressionable members of the all-ages audience into a swooning tizzy. On the songs where Davis played guitar, tempos crept up slightly and some polished and polite pop elements were evident. However, those looking for a more aggressive punch from Bella Lea were sure to be disappointed. Despite the members' angular and aggressive past musical efforts, there are no irregular time signatures or interesting jagged chords in Bella Lea's music, just a giant, plodding, enveloping soundscape. On the band's demo, new guitarist Matt Clark sounds a bit hamfisted, but the live performance makes it evident that he is actually playing interesting jazz-inflected chords and transitions under all of those masking swirling effects and reverb. Ultimately I wasn't sure if I enjoyed the band or not, but I knew a host of people I could recommend the band to who would adore it. Bella Lea has a pre-made audience waiting for them, I’m just not sure if I'm part of it.

Having never heard Richmond's Engine Down, I figured catching its last area gig (and one of the last half dozen gigs ever) might be a good place to start. Since the "recommended if you like" references seemed good, and the "ex members of" list was nice, I was curious how I had missed the band during its nine-year career. As the band set up its gear – both heavy on the Orange amplifiers and the dramatic lighting – I began to make guesses about what I'd hear. It's probably not wise to prejudge a band’s sound by its gear, but in this case, I was right on the nose.

It's obvious what audiences enjoy about Engine Down: not only is the band polished and tight, but its songs also have sweeping vocal emotional highs and soul-rattling bass lows. In between, jagged guitars flow in expected and organic ways. Despite having never heard the songs before, I was able to bounce, sway, and count along. When things seem too normal the band finds its way to 6/8 rhythms, but even then, things never become jarring. The band's sound is full and encompassing, and was a stark contrast to the wiry guitar leads presented by Harris an hour earlier. I drew quick comparisons to Kansas City's Shiner, although Shiner never had Engine Down's sheen. Maybe Sunny Day Real Estate. Either way, the polish was too much for me, and I moved to the back of the club.

From my new vantage point, I watched frontman and guitarist Kelley Davis (Maura Davis' older brother) entertain the crowd with sincere, although hackneyed, banter. Yes, I'm sure the band really does love Boston audiences. Then again, I bet they love anyone who might pay to see them in Kalamazoo as well. The banter reached it's sickening low during the introduction to the band's final song of the night. It went something like "As a band, we were never very good at goodbyes. So we're going to turn off the lights for a moment and say 'good bye'." Then, after turning off the lights as promised, Davis added "Good bye." The quartet then launched into a triumphant and celebratory final number. When the audience called out for more, the band returned to deliver a show-stopping two-song encore of flashing lights and noisy chaos from guitars pressed into amps or left to scream on stage floors. At the end of the final number, band members left the stage one by one – each taking away a portion of the howling sound with them until there was only a drummer, then nothing at all. While that should have been the end of the night, the crowd kept chanting for more, eventually drawing out two of the band members for an ill-advised fifteen second, rapped nursery rhyme. The night was definitely over then.

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