Big warm drops fell on my glasses, blurring my vision. The doors that were advertised to open at 8pm hadn't yet opened at 8:30, leaving me exposed to the elements and wondering if the rain was refreshing or annoying. Ten minutes later, the line started moving and I made my way along the side of the building, into the club, and – twelve dollars later – to the front of the stage.
Charlene began its set a half hour later and fifteen minutes late. Though I had seen the band before, I hadn't remembered it as a duo. Were some members out of town? The twosome of John Rex (guitar/vocals) and Matt Mirande (keyboards) began Charlene's set with flowing space rock hemmed in by melody and song structure, and further defined by modern breaking beats courtesy of Mirande's keyboards and a laptop computer. After two songs, bassist Jay Cannava and drummer Brad Searles joined Rex and Mirande, sending the latter over to second guitar. In this configuration the band delivered the pleasant shoe-gazing indie rock it's performed throughout its six-year career. A large bank of effects pedals provided both guitarists with room to explore sounds, while the laptop-as-sequencer provided ebbing or flowering synthesized accents. Rex's hushed vocals are reminiscent of Jim Reid's, lending to accurate comparisons between Charlene and The Jesus and Mary Chain. While the evening’s final number (a song Rex announced was new) had a bit more bounce and "Madchester" feel, the song maintained the over-the-top guitar freak-outs of the band's earlier work.
Although the audience was stuffed with fans and friends (some repeatedly calling for Rex to remove his pants), the band was noticeably uneasy. By the end of the set, Rex relayed (in a barely-audible mumble) that he was starting to loosen up; the rest of the band, however, never seemed to find the moment. Cannava and Searles were particularly stiff during their occasional stints as keyboardists positioned at front and center stage. Despite the rigidity in its performance, the band's music, thankfully, didn't suffer.
In the break between acts I noted the audience had begun to fill in. While the club wasn't yet sold out, the open space behind me was now filled with young kids with X-ed hands and indie rock uniforms. I was tickled by the kids' banter as the members of Feathers began to load their gear onto the stage. The appearance of each new instrument prompted a new comment from the audience. "It's a sitar." "Whoa Ravi Shankar." Yes, my little friend, Ravi Shankar. "Oh no, that's a banjo!" Oh snap, you're right Tyler. Once the septet had loaded all the gear, the stage was buried by a flute, a keyboard, a mandolin, a banjo, a dulcimer, several acoustic and electric guitars, an electric bass guitar, a harp, a sitar, various tablas and other hand drums as well as a full drum kit. Alongside this gear sat the members of Feathers, each in the flowing and rag-tag fashions favored by the 20-something hippie attending a liberal arts college. That is to say their uniforms were different from those in the audience, and this too caused uproar from the X-ed youths. Once the audience had gotten over its shock and the members of the band found their places amongst the gear, the set could finally start.
As with any ensemble this large, Feathers' sound is often hard to pin down. There is a strong classic Americana influence that recalled the Appalachian ballads of the first part of the last century, although more modern folk elements from the American folk revival of the 50s and early 60s are also apparent. The band's compositions are long, owing a bit to the 70s progressive rock, and even some of the 60s psychedelia. Elements of the dense stoner rock of Bardo Pond – particularly Kyle's (the band eschews last names) electric guitar work – would occasionally take the foreground, but more often the central focus was the blended voices of the band members. Whether miked or not, each player contributed his or her voice to create a commanding yet haunting chorus. The number of voices and variety of instrumentation earn the band favorable comparisons to Cerberus Shoal, a band I imagine they have more in common with than simple geography. The final comparison I'd like to thrust at you is to Godspeed You Black Emperor! Both bands seem to be built on the same communal foundations (albeit GYBE! may have been born at an anarchist gathering, while Feathers at a Rainbow Gathering) that encourage experimentation and accept all ideas equally. Most members of Feathers took their turn at lead vocals, and all players shifted instruments from song to song. While this sharing exercise likely keeps peace in the band and adds variety to the band's music, it does wreak havoc on a stage show that frequently stagnated with silence between songs. Making matters worse, the audience took these long pauses as a cue to begin their own conversations and continued these conversations throughout the band's set. In fact, the audience was often louder than the glut of acoustic instruments on stage. When I wasn't giving dirty looks to the chatty gents behind me, my distracted mind wondered why would people come to a Smog show – a show that was obviously going to be a quiet affair – if they just wanted to drink and visit with friends? Despite my glowering and some like-minded anonymous shushing from deeper in the audience, the rude portion of the crowd overpowered the band. It follows that when Feathers ended its set, I was left frustrated and wanting more.
The stage was quickly cleared of Feathers' gear revealing Smog's stage set up. Despite that quick change and a show that was already running late, the audience was forced to stare at an empty stage for fifteen minutes until the members of Smog left the club's green room. I'm always annoyed by such arrogant behavior. Smog had already earned its first strike.
Despite the earlier disregard for the audience, the crowd at the Middle East roared its approval when Bill Callahan (Smog is the sole creation of singer/guitarist Callahan) took the stage. Callahan was joined by a touring band consisting of Jim White (of Dirty Three) on drums, Colleen Burke (of We Ragazzi) on bass, and Jason Dezember on electric guitar. The band opened with "Say Valley Maker," a song that defines the central metaphor of Smog's the new album, A River Ain't Too Much To Love. The band continued with five other songs from the new album before shifting to play the expected "hits."
Appropriate to the mood of the new album, Callahan was often somber and stoic. Aside from the knowing non-verbals exchanged with specific audience members (he made it apparent that he didn't like me looking at the setlist by covering it with his foot and dragging it out of view), Callahan didn't verbally address the audience until the introduction of closer "Our Anniversary." While things did get a bit raucous for "Let Me See the Colts," even then it was mostly White, not Callahan, who had a chance to stretch out. Callahan's mood was hard to read, but he did perform his silly shuffle (this largely consists of hopping side-to-side from one outstretched leg to the other) at various points throughout the night as well as a "dance" move involving bending down on trembling knees. Those who have seen Smog perform before are aware that this motion is the whole of Callahan's stage show. This is not necessarily a strike.
Although the crowd did quiet for Smog, the large downstairs room of The Middle East isn't the right venue for the delicate and personal music of Smog. Surprisingly, Callahan's rough baritone didn't fill the room, and the intricacies of his picked acoustic guitar didn't even make it to the edge of the stage. The fragile songs initially recorded with just guitar and voice were overrun by extraneous instrumentation, while the fuller songs suffered from the opposite. Without the occasional violin, organ, or backing vocal found on these recordings, many of these songs were lacking and incomplete. There seem to be only two possible outcomes when I see an intimate band like Smog live: either a connection is made with the performer and I am transported to a place separate from the venue, or I find myself wishing I was at home, in a comfortable chair, listening to the band on my stereo. Smog was definitely in the second category. Strike two.
After a few minutes of mandated applause, the band returned for an "encore" of the two remaining songs on its setlist: "Justice Aversion" and "Cold Blooded Old Times." The latter featured the entire cast of Feathers contributing a hodge-podge of noises and styles. While it was nice to end the evening on an energetic high note, it wasn't evident that the members of Feathers had ever heard the song before, much less written themselves parts to accent that tune's particular beauty. Planned encores always get a strike, so there is no need to contemplate the success of the Smog/Feathers collabouration.
When I stepped outside the club, Cambridge was cooler and it was no longer raining, although it was still terribly humid. I walked to the bus stop wondering if it's reasonable to like Smog's albums so much but be so disappointed with its live show. Do the two need to sync up? This pointless preponderant pondering was interrupted when the #64 bus rushed by and my walk became a race to the stop. On the bus I decided that the next time Smog came to town, I’d stay home in my easy chair listening to Red Apple Falls and Knock Knock and I'll be just fine with that.