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Monday April 24th, 2006 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA
John Vanderslice, Wooden Wand, & Page France
John Vanderslice
James Toth is Wooden Wand
Michael Nau of Page France
[more photos]

At 9pm a line snaked through the entire length of The Middle East Upstairs. The crowd was young, and quite a few didn't seem to have a handle on the whole "rock show" experience. One kid, who had obliviously dragged his reluctant friends along for the show, was busy apologizing for the existence of the unexpected opening bands. I heard him confess, "I just thought he'd go on at 9." When has that ever happened? At a bit after 9:00 the doors did open, however, and at 9:15 (as scheduled) the opener took the stage.

Page France is a five-piece indie pop/rock outfit fronted by vocalist/guitarist Michael Nau. The band's sound is bright and poppy, dominated by the strummed acoustic guitar of Nau, but frequently accented by the plinking keyboard or chiming xylophone of Whitney McGraw. Similarly, Nau is the voice of the band, though backing vocals from McGraw, bassist Jasen Reeder and guitarist Bryan Martin round out the sound. These fuller moments are reminiscent of the lazy, southern California easiness championed by the folk rock bands of the early 70s. Nau's scruffy two-week beard and the well-worn denim favoured by the entire band also hinted at the same easy-going nature. Of course let's not confuse the issue; Page France certainly owes more to The Pernice Brothers, Lucky Jeremy or Pete Krebs than it does to The Eagles or Jackson Browne. The band's half-hour set was enjoyable, Nau was friendly and entertaining, and the band's songs were always engaging, but ultimately that was it. It's hard to be hooked by an unknown opening band, but Page France still has the potential to impress.

Following Baltimore's Page France was Knoxville's Wooden Wand and the Enablers. Wooden Wand is the work of freak-folk impresario James Toth. The band has existed in several different line-ups, recorded under a couple of different names and put out two dozen releases (most on self-released cassette or CDR, but also on several luminaries like Troubleman or Kill Rock Stars). To add confusion, each of these releases is just as varied as the band and label that produced it. Positively anything could happen on the stage under the guise of Wooden Wand.

For this tour – and several upcoming albums – Toth has unchained himself from his previous band (the Vanishing Voice), instead touring with a duo comprised of second guitarist Keith Wood (of Hush Arbors) and vocalist Jessica Bowen (aka Satya Sai) dubbed "The Enablers." Toth's electric guitar and tiny Orange practice amplifier ring broken arpeggios and tumbling chords throughout the set as his hushed voice lends a grave seriousness to his dark songs. While Wood is often unobtrusive, he is occasionally called on to provide bizarre guitar freakouts. Not only are these moments unexpected (and uncalled for), but also, as they're played through a tiny overdriven amplifier, they sound thin and weak. These freakouts should recall Lou Reed's finer moments where the sudden appearance of guitar noise demands that the listener not only pay attention but also respond in some way. Instead, these solos are only minor annoyances, able to be shrugged off. Conversely, Bowen's backing vocals are essential to the lonesome folk sound of Wooden Wand. With Bowen, tracks like "Holla Din Joy" are timeless anthems, seemingly as old as the mountains Knoxville saddles up to. The closed-eyed chanteuse is understated, her movements fluid and her support immeasurable.

As evinced in the queue earlier, the audience had come for John Vanderslice; he did not disappoint. Vanderslice is one of the most consistent songwriters today. His lyrics are direct and compassionate without being obvious, and his music spans from the somber to the elated without dwelling too much in either extreme. Pop elements define each song, but smaller synthesized elements or stray drum lines punctuate each song making his music unique.

Vanderslice’s set consisted of songs culled mostly from his latest release (last year's Pixel Revolt), although it was augmented by a few interesting older choices and (literally) completed by fan favourites (there are no "hits") including "Me and My 424," "My Old Flame," and "Time Travel is Lonely." Vanderslice was in good spirits, as usual, joking with the crowd and always smiling. While earlier acts were certainly homey, Vanderslice managed to portray that same ease, but did it in such a way as to still be conscious that he was leading a band that the audience had paid to see.

Vanderslice's touring band consisted of some familiar faces (Dave Douglas on drums/samples, David Broecker on bass) as well as a new one: Ian Bjornstad on keyboards and synthesizer. Vanderslice's songs performed live sound very much as they do on record. Only the slightest changes exist, and these seem to exist mostly to amuse Vanderslice and his band. For example, at one point Vanderslice stopped the show to highlight a particular keyboard accompaniment provided by Bjornstad. The slight phase shift was unrecognizable when accompanied by the full band, and even when soloed it was mostly uneventful. Vanderslice, however, was tickled, and the audience applauded – not so much for Bjornstad's ingenuity, but for Vanderslice's passion.

Thankfully Vanderslice abhors the banality of encores as much as I do, so, as the set was wrapping up, he announced that the final three numbers would constitute the encore. A few suggestions were shouted from the crowd, but Vanderslice stuck to his set list and wrapped up the show cleanly. A few minutes later I saw the top of Vanderslice's head (which isn't nearly as blonde as it once was) surrounded by a sea of appreciative fans. With Sharpie in hand, he signed copies of the tour-only, rerecorded and stripped down version of Pixel Revolt – and anything else placed in front of him. Earlier in the tour Vanderslice was asked to sign the buttocks of a fan, and while fans in the puritanical Boston were certainly more abashed, I'm positive they are just as devoted as the ass-bearer met earlier in the tour.