(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Concert review - Wye Oak with Callers

2 April 2011 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
Sonically, Wye Oak and Callers have staked out different ground. But even though Wye Oak offers more raw energy and catharsis than Callers, both acts feature a heightened truth in their performances. The subtle intensity of Callers contrasts with Wye Oaks enthusiastic drive, but fans of either band can appreciate the dynamics and depth of the other.

The house was fairly sparse when Callers took the stage, but filled out well by the end of their set. With no local opening act, the music didn't start until a little after 10:30.

I've been excited to catch Callers since reviewing their latest album, Life of Love. I was curious to hear how they would translate their rich, yet subtle studio sound to the stage. Life of Love is dreamy and introspective, so the risk is that their stage presence might be too inwardly focused. They dispelled any fears of that with their first song, by showing that they could channel their internal, centered energy without slipping into a shoe gazer performance.

They led off with Fortune, the title cut off their 2008 debut album. The song starts with drums and a bass line that recall the tightly controlled tension of Talking Heads' Psycho Killer. But instead of David Byrne's overly tight, edgy vocals dialing things up, Sara Lucas' voice soothed and caressed.

Throughout their set, Callers exploited the contrasts in their music. Their subtle playing hinted at a deeper power under its surface. The loose flow of the music fell out of the tight coordination of their parts. Each musician brings a vital element.

Don Godwin's drum playing framed the space of the tunes. His tom and kick work were thoughtful and intuitive, keeping the beat without needing to play each one. This jazzy approach allowed every stroke to decorate the open feel of the songs.

Ryan Seaton provided both the bass lines and much of the guitar for the songs. Seaton's finger style technique was amazing: his left hand stretching to lay down arpeggios while keeping the bass line moving and his right hand flurrying across the strings to pick both. Despite the heavy technique, Seaton's nuanced playing seemed to reflect his internal grasp of the music's soul.

That soul took shape from Sara Lucas' singing. Sounding like a succession of strong women singers from the past, Lucas went from lazy Phoebe Snow to powerful Joan Armatrading moments to give the songs a special depth. She brought a well deserved confidence to her parts as she also added keys or guitar to some of the songs. Her guitar playing meshed well with Seaton, accenting and filling out the sound on songs like Glow.

Together, the three assembled an elaborate balance of pieces into an effortless whole. A world of sonic textures and a loose, natural rhythm were ever present.

Their live sound showcased an even richer sense of dynamic than their studio work. Their Wire cover, Heartbeat, had a strong foot tapping start and then set up a tremendous sweep from dreamy mantra to a swirling wall of beautiful dissonance and back.

I also had a chance to talk with the band before the show and find out how down to earth and interesting they were.

Wye Oak
Wye Oak was a strong draw in Denver. The front row of the crowd were dedicated fans who sang along with every song. Like Callers, Wye Oak built a complex sound that seemed far larger expected from just a couple of musicians. Drummer Andy Stack usually reserved his left hand to play keyboard based bass lines and accents while he covered the rest of his rhythm parts. Guitarist/singer Jenn Wasner had a large dynamic range and dissonant approach that sometimes sounded like a couple of guitar parts at once. Wasner's singing style was different than Sara Lucas', but there was a similar expressiveness that fit well with the Callers' set.

Dissonance was a key element of Wye Oak's sound. While some of the songs began with an indie folk feel, by the second verse or so the distortion kicked up into a thick wall of sound. But this stayed in service to the music: the point was never to shock but rather express the inner turmoil or conflict of the song. Importantly, it wasn't over used. Wye Oak had a good sense of dynamic that allowed for raw, cathartic purging and earnest, confessional singing. The over all balance was more post punk than indie folk.

Jenn Wasner brought a brash energy to her playing and a deep honesty to her singing. She had a great stage presence: not chewing through the scenery but creating an electric spark as she bounced to her guitar slashes. Fully immersed in every song, Wasner was a master at using droning echo-laden guitar to set the mood. Her voice was strong and a little dark as she shifted from wistful to aching to assertive. She reminded me a bit of Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders.

Andy Stack's versatility was astounding. With his left hand tied up playing keys, his other three limbs had to work extra hard on drums. His right foot worked the kick drum to cover some of the tom parts and his right hand covered cymbal and snare work. This wasn't quite the same as Rick Allen (the drummer from Def Leppard who lost his left arm) drumming approach, but it seemed similarly inspired by necessity. Stack was much more focused on playing rather than interacting with the crowd, but he and Wasner communicated well.

After Wye Oak's emotionally powerful show, I now plan to check out their studio work. They have a new album, Civilian, that came out last month.

It was a great couple of sets -- like a smoky scotch followed by brighter shot of rye whiskey.

More photos on my Flickr.

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