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Thursday April 9th, 2015 at TT the Bear's in Cambridge, MA
Jeremy Enigk, El May, & The Field Effect

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It was a dark and stormy night. And cold. And it had snowed the day before. And it was April. The doors weren't scheduled to open until 8:30, but the bouncer took pity on those of us who arrived early, letting us wait in the foyer as long as the door remained shut – he was vigilant about keeping the cold out in his take-no-shit bouncer way. At the appropriate time IDs were checked, and, thanks to local entertainment company Do 617, I was escorted in. The last time I shot at TT's was May of 2006, but memories came flooding back as soon as I walked in the open doorway. I'm sure those aging incandescent stage lights have not moved since the mural at the back of the stage wall was installed, and, of course, the club still smelled the same. We're always told that memory is triggered by smell more than any other sense – that is unfortunate for TT's. Still it was home, and as such I took my regular seat on the edge of the stage.

It was just after 9:00 when the four members of the opening band joined me on the stage, scaring me off and drawing the already sizeable audience forward and into rock formation. It was reminiscent of those elementary school science experiments with magnets and metal shavings. Looking up at the unfamiliar band I pondered my mission. It's never advisable to write about a band the first time you see them, but it's downright irresponsible to do it when that band is playing a special acoustic set that (presumably) differs from its bread and butter. So here's to knowing better, and continuing all the same.

In this incarnation, The Field Effect was lead by the acoustic guitar, overwrought vocals, and noteworthy beard of Doug Orey. Guitarist Nick Grieco guarded the right flank, bassist Annie Hoffman the left, and drummer Adam J. Hand supported the rear. As for the "acoustic" nature of the show, well, there was Orey's guitar, and Hand's drums were tampered with hand towels to quiet them for the event, but both Grieco and Hoffman operated under (what I assumed) was normal working conditions. Based on the sole descriptor provided on the band's Facebook page, The Field Effect is normally very loud. On this night, the band was just appropriately loud.

Doug Orey was a likeable frontman, though at times he was a tad too earnest and dramatic for my cynical disposition. Nearly every song found him howling wide-mouthed at the microphone, with his eyes shut tightly. During the finale he stomped and thrashed about with his acoustic, but he was still countless calories behind Hoffman, who danced gleefully from the first song until the last. Surprisingly neither her bevy of bass pedals, nor the microphone stand they sat behind got any real work. I suspect this differs in the band's normal set. While Grieco's backing microphone did get a bit of work, mostly his contribution came from the colorful leads that filled the band's sound out. The end result was a solid set of well-crafted, middle-of-the-road, commercially viable alternative rock songs. So commercial in fact, that one song was a kissing cousin of the Goo Goo Dolls' "And I Just Want You to Know Who I Am," while another (the closer known to the entirety of the crowd lining the stage) recalled Blind Melon. Some bands might be insulted by the comparisons, although The Field Effect have a stated goal of appealing to "the many," so calling out these similarities may be validation that the band is on the right track. I'm not sure how the new song built on tricky rhythms and curious time shifts will play with the masses, but it was definitely my favorite of the set. Maybe I'm a contrarian, or maybe the new record the band is currently recording will truly appeal to everyone.

After a twenty-minute set change, the evening continued with El May – the musical project of Los Angeles-based (and Australian-born) multi-instrumentalist Lara Meyerratken. While Meyerratken has a long history of session and supporting roles in others' endeavors, with El May, Meyerratken takes a big step into the limelight with a project that is both deeply personal and undoubtedly danceable. With the support of touring guitarist/bassist/backing vocalist Scott Leahy(of Sea Wolf) and session drummer Scott Heiner, El May delivered a 40-minute set that drew on both the polyrhythms favored by Paul Simon and the intricately constructed art pop of St. Vincent. Whether on bass or guitar, Meyerratken was a bold player, pushing what could have been simple singer/songwriter fare to the artistic edge. This was certainly evident in the way that she (and Leahy) eschewed traditional supporting roles. With neither performer providing a foundation, songs were allowed to flit about freely – usually to favorable ends. Unfortunately Meyerratken's skills as a frontwoman were still quite stiff, and so even in the moments where she did share her toothy smile with the crowd, there was always a feeling of separation between performer and audience. Was this attributable to Meyerratken's status as a foreigner (despite her decades in the States), the side effect of performing such revealing material in front of strangers, or something else entirely? Thankfully by the time we got to the closer, Meyerratken was freely sharing some of her dance moves (and high kicks) with the appreciative audience.

Still, it was headliner Jeremy Enigk who the crowd had come to see. Or possibly it was Jeremy Enigk's previous band, Sunny Day Real Estate, that the crowd had come hoping to see. I suspected that gap in expectation might make for an interesting evening.

Just before 11pm the stage was carefully set with a microphone stand placed front and center, a music stand (replete with bendy clip-on light) beside it, and two acoustic guitars carefully placed on stands within arm's reach. A hodgepodge of other gear sat piled in the corner, seemingly forgotten. The ordered equipment was for Enigk, while the remaining heap was for multi-instrumentalist and composer Mark Nichols (best known to Enigk's fans as the man who orchestrated Enigk's 1996 solo debut Return of the Frog Queen). Having Nichols along was quite a treat, even if his contributions to Enigk's music have always been felt rather than seen. That distinction was made quite literal by the stage at TT's where some performers are well lit, while others in the wings are lost in deep shadows. Maybe it was just the mystery of this darkness, but more often than not I found myself peering past Enigk to catch a glimpse of the computerized triggers, flat-lying bass drum, keyboards, and other tools in Nichols' box. Of course Enigk's motionless, workmanlike performance wasn't exactly eye catching.

Certainly Enigk's songs are heartfelt and often brilliant, his lyrics are emotional and vivid, his work on acoustic guitar is studied and reliable, his emotive voice is steady and sure, and he is a professional and confident frontman with decades of experience to guide him, but, unfortunately, these are not generally the hallmarks of an exciting night of live rock & roll. Furthermore, my favorite moments of Enigk's career involve swelling dynamics resulting in cathartic explosions of volume and raw emotion, yet this performance was built around quiet control and dignified calm. As suspected, this sorted the audience; fans of Enigk's solo work were only drawn deeper into the music, raptly listening for its subtle intricacies, while fans of Enigk's Sunny Day Real Estate were less impressed by the quiet fingerpicked guitar work, and soon started conversations amongst themselves. Although I was able to appreciate the tiny moments of ingenuity, I, spent most of the set waiting for the full-voiced scream that I knew Enigk was capable of, but wouldn't ever appear.

Despite this schism, most audience members were able to lose themselves in Enigk's world, mouthing along to songs that they didn't expect to ever see performed live, and applauding wildly the new songs scheduled for the album Enigk hopes to record soon. Yet it might be telling that the two biggest applause moments of the night came after a (positively delightful) deconstructed cover of The Police's "King of Pain," and upon Enigk announcing his encore with the phrase "Once upon a time there was a band called 'Sunny Day Real Estate'."

Enigk ended his 40-minute set with a short fifteen-minute encore, then stood humbly at his microphone accepting waves of applause and calls for more (which he tastefully declined). It was still before midnight when I pushed out of the club and into the cold drizzle. Instinctively I walked down Brookline turning right on Green and headed toward the intersection where I could catch the last 64 bus home like I did so many times before. It was nearly a decade ago that I last lived in Boston and caught that bus, but returning to TT's made it all seem like yesterday. Man I miss that smelly bar.