Written by Todd Wanerman

Noise Pop’s Friday night roster posed some maddeningly appealing choices. Some members of our usual research team opted to check out Atlas Sound etc. at the Great American, arguing that it offered the promising new talent that the festival excels in. I and several of my familiars could not resist The Mumlers, The Growlers, Sonny and the Sunsets and The Ferocious Few at Café du Nord. True, I have seen the three local acts on the bill many times. But the prospect of all three of them together, with a fourth act fresh off of touring with Dr. Dog, just sounded like party of the year.

The Ferocious Few have built a mighty legend around town, as much for their fearless guerrilla street jams - ignoring or dropping F-bombs on anyone who suggests that they pack up and move on as for their super-charged take on Howlin’ Wolf/Elmore James/Creedence style blues. As Fernandez himself pointed out, the duo is more accustomed to playing on the sidewalk outside of a Noise Pop show than being up on stage, so how would they fare in the spotlight?

Fernandez started with a simmering solo acoustic number, while drummer Aguilar expressed his sangfroid by leisurely applying lip balm. They had their set on the boil soon enough, with Aguilar’s frantic brushwork on display and Fernandez breaking two strings in the first 3 songs. The qualities that make them so appealing -– their sincere delivery of traditional song forms, and their hold-nothing-back energy -– was a little diluted in a legit setting, but still in abundance. The Few’s first full-length studio album, Juices, comes out this month on Birdman Records.

Sonny and the Sunsets has been one of my favorite local groups since I happened upon them at a Happy Hour show at the Makeout Room over a year ago. Their leader, Sonny Smith, has been a cult figure around town for years, for everything from music to comics to playwriting. As he told me, he put the Sunsets together to focus on a more driving, energetic sound than that of his earlier solo albums like Fruitvale. Lucky for Sonny, he recruited another local legend, Kelley Stoltz, who absolutely floored the crowd right here at the du Nord with his own songs at a Haiti benefit a few weeks back, as his drummer. Bassist Ryan Browne joined in a little later, rounding out one of the strongest rhythm sections in town.

I felt a little pain in my heart when the Sunsets took the stage without singer/guitarist Thalia Harbour, who is such a huge part of the intangible Sunsets magic. Stoltz told me later that she was in San Luis Obispo with her other group, Citay, who also played the festival this week. Launching into their live favorite, “Too Young to Burn,” however, the stripped-down Sunsets signaled that they would make up for Harbour’s absence by rocking really hard. Bassist Browne dug into the grooves and provided able back up vocals, and Stoltz gave the tom toms an artful polyrhythmic punishing. Sonny responded with some of his wildest fretwork of late, and the crowd clearly approved. The altered lineup brought out some unusual material, including a hard-hitting new song, “Heart of Sadness.” I will be thrilled to see them again as a four-piece, especially given how prominent male-female vocal interplay is in all of Smith’s music. But without a doubt, they turned adversity into triumph.

At this juncture, a group of hirsute gentlemen with colorful shirts and hats and black markings on their faces who had been nodding off around the pool table took the stage and revealed themselves to be The Growlers. Guitarist Matt Taylor led a bouncing first number, with the lyrics “many drugs to do,” standing out. He shared vocal duties with a guy whose wild blond mane inspired a “natural hair or fright wig?” debate among the crowd. As the song ended, actual lead singer Brooks Nielsen took the stage in a black fur fez and dismissed the blond with hugs. “Sorry,” he explained, “I fucking passed out.”

Bassist Scott Montoya confirmed that the band was partying extra hard as their tour winds down, but I suspect that Los Angeles' The Growlers’ vibe is somewhat consistent. Their show suggested an old school, self-contained rock bacchanal, rolling from town to town, rousing only to deliver electrifying but slightly unhinged live sets, complete with floppy-hatted handmaidens undulating at the side of the stage. Their sound draws on minor keys and a rolling, folksy rhythm to create a gypsy rock vibe: think Cocksucker Blues- era Stones doing the Camper van Beethoven songbook. The tunes blur together a bit and Nielsen’s voice often runs through a second, reverb-drenched mike, sounding a little like Eartha Kitt. But none of that hurts. These guys are living the part and they know how to work a crowd.

San Jose’s The Mumlers have come a long way since I first saw them “close” for headliners The Mommyheads here at du Nord two years back. Just last year they were second on a bill of four at Noise Pop. But having toured the country behind their fantastic second album Don’t Throw Me Away they have built the kind of following they deserve.

It doesn’t matter how successful or accomplished they may become, the beauty of The Mumlers will always be the impression that they got together in the music room during lunch sometime during 8th grade. Their combination of doofiness, camaraderie and musical chops is unique and infectious, and the crowd -- many of whom clearly knew the band well -– responded with squeals of approval and ecstatic dancing.

The Mumlers’ building blocks are tuba, French horn, saxes, trumpet, clarinet, and keys, played in rotation over upright bass, guitar and drums; rolling, second-line jazz and jump blues, and lyrics that express both weariness and youthful wonder, delivered by singer Will Sprott in a voice that suggests young Bob’s Dylan and Marley mashed together. The line, “as long as we owe each other something, we will never be broke,” from the rollicking set opener “Raise the Blinds,” sums up their worldly goodwill.

The mix, especially keys and horns, was a little overpowering for the small room, and some guitar and harmony-laden new songs, while intriguing, slowed down the middle of their set. But this was Mumlers at the top of their game, generous and dedicated to their audience as always. The arrangements and playing were airtight, and the five-part harmonies flawless. They brought the house down with their single “Coffin Factory” and then bid everyone good night with the beautiful album-closer “Don’t Throw Me Away.”

To my absent colleagues: I hope Atlas Sound delivered. You missed a killer party.

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