Friday, September 3, 2010

Performance Review: She & Him

On September 1, 2010, She & Him played the Ryman Auditorium…and I was there.

I’ve had my ups and downs with She & Him…and lately mostly downs. But if there’s one thing I’m good about it’s second, third and twenty-eighth chances (shut up, Joshua Thomas Reese or I will cut you), and so when at nearly the last minute I was offered a chance to get a second row seat at this show I just couldn’t pass it up.

Being virtually unfamiliar with She & Him’s second album, Volume 2, I got my hands on a copy and had this to say to the aforementioned JT:

I have to say that I was really concerned that this was going to be leftovers from Volume 1, but was pleasantly surprised. I think it's a far superior album for three (3) reasons. 1) better songs...less “amateurish” and naive, 2) way better production - still “lo-fi” but not trying to be 1964 and 3) I was prepared for her voice and for it to suck so I didn't have any big expectations (that last one is fully on me). Now there are instances when it reminds me of Volume 1, and I don’t like those bits as much, but overall it’s its own deal, which in a word is great. With that in mind I'm currently listening to Volume 1 again and I'm "enjoying" it in the sense of familiarity, but the parts that bugged me still do and the parts that were endearing, while by no means diminished, are not enhanced. Long story short...sophomore slump my eye, Volume 2 is the album Volume 1 should have been.

So, with that in mind and after an appropriate and expected amount of ribbing from JT, I tottered off to the show. No, I didn't really totter and I don’t even know how, but it’s late and I’m tired and that’s what’s sticking.

The opener was the first gig for NRBQ alum Al Anderson’s new band, The World Famous Headliners, who slung out about ten or so numbers of rock-tinged country (or was that country-tinged rock?) and delivered a rather enjoyable if somewhat long-winded set. And then Zooey and M and their crew came on…

I won’t say I was blown away by the show, but I was certainly impressed, thoroughly enjoyed myself and at the end of the night had a new found respect not only for Zooey as a musician/performer, but for her songs as well, including and especially those found on the group’s first effort. I was curious to see how an actor turned pop star (for lack of a better term), especially one so enigmatic as Zooey Deschanel, would present themselves in a musical, non-acting environ. And then of course there’s M Ward, a somewhat veteran of the indie rock scene for a number of years, who is known as a bit of a musical eccentric and has finally gotten a bit of hard earned and well deserved notice thanks to this project. So, as I was watching these two perform (backed by a super top notch band), I had these thoughts…

  • Zooey: Cute, nervous, detached from the experience
  • M: Humble, professional, frantic yet controlled guitar play

Zooey was certainly a very individualistic performer, in no way playing rock or movie star – especially in the sense of playing up to the audience – delivering her frank and confessional songs with an aloof almost indifferent manner – as if us being there didn’t seem to matter and she’d be equally happy playing them in her room with nothing in front of her but a DCFC-postered wall. Though often coming to the very edge of the stage she never once looked down or seemed to make eye contact with anyone. This was an endearing yet at times distracting aspect of the performance, ‘cos the audience wants to feel that you the performer are there for them specifically. And Zooey certainly said thank you a bunch as well as gave the it’s-so-awesome-to-be-here spiel about the Ryman that everyone does, but there was the distinct impression that she wasn’t going to open up any more than her voice, songs and general presence would allow, playing the part of the bright/wide eyed Tammy Wynette-esque starlet who “can’t believe this is happening to me” to a T. So perhaps this was just another role for her, that of the distant ingénue, though JT says she’s just a stuck up biatch and Karla says she’s just weird. Maybe, I dunno, but for better or worse it was all part of the show and by the end of the set she had either loosened up a bit or I had been brought under the power of her off-kilter charms, because I was going along with it all as if it were everything I had hoped for.

The music itself was a rehashing of just about everything from both albums, and I was surprised that the first couple of songs were from Volume 1 - which to me meant they were trying to deliver the ebb and flow of a solid set and not cater to the well known “hits” or showcase the new material. Plus, when most of your songs are roughly three minutes and you don’t do much talking in between, you can burn threw quite a few in a relatively short amount of time. Meanwhile, the performances themselves, though certainly inspired, were pretty representative of the album versions, with two female back up singers to add harmonies and shake tambourines, etc. Having said that, while they did follow their album counterparts almost verbatim, the songs benefited greatly from the “live vibe” and the near complete removal of the aforementioned “1964” sound that was so prevalent, and for me detrimental, to those on Volume 1 especially. Bottom line, it was just a good band playing good tunes – rough, raw and ready for anything.

But the real magic occurred when it was just She & Him, that is to say the two of them, and after about ten songs the band left for a bit and Z&M first ran through a very nice rendition of Wouldn’t It Be Nice with Zooey on ukulele and M on acoustic guitar, his lower register harmonies a very pleasant fit to the laid back delivery of the song (though I couldn’t help but hear the Brian Wilson bits in my head). It was in these stripped down moments that I realized just how amazing Zooey’s voice is. While a few times during some of the more up beat numbers she was a bit drown out by the band (which may have been a mix-cheat from where I was sitting), when it was just the two of them and the mic (or not) she really let loose and, dare I say, opened up to us, and at no time was that more evident or moving than on the show closer – a haunting, impassioned, downright animalistic performance of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ capital C-lassic I Put a Spell on You that had folks cheering, screaming, laughing and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few tears fell. It was truly powerful.

The folks I was with complained that they wished there had been a bit more of him to go with the she, and M, while everywhere with his guitar playing, providing ample backing vocals and being an overall presence as the band leader, only took lead vocals during the first encore – a reworking of Buddy Holly’s Rave On (if there’s a recorded version of this somewhere please let me know) and an all guns blazing, true to the source rendition of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven.

And with these and a couple other covers from the set, I realized that She & Him are in many ways a tribute band (as opposed to a retro band) to the spirit of the roots music that splintered into and created the classic rock, pop and country that even your parents look so fondly on today. And the idea of a tribute denotes a feeling of love and admiration, so at the end of the day that means that She & Him isn’t some cash in of a movie star using her celebrity to make a few more bucks and gain a few more ego stars for her sash. Zooey and M truly love the music of those times, to perform those songs for themeselves and others and to be inspired to write like-minded tunes that carry on the tradition and the spirit of what all boils down to rock n roll.

Check 'em out here.

1 comment:

Stewart said...

William, that was one great piece of writing. I'm not a doe-eyed tween. I'm 60, retired from newspapers, and was front row at the concert.

Your descriptions of Zooey's aloofness and talent were spot on.
She's an enigma wrapped in an enigma, as they say. I commend her for being careful with her image and not exploiting an opportunity to be more than alt-America's sweetheart.

Anyway, enter this damn review in some contests!