You know those nights youâ€™re not really looking for an over-the-top, knock your socks off, raucous rock â€˜n roll romp, but rather some good music with a solid crowd at a pretty sweet, but smaller venue? I was having just one of those evenings last Thursday and I was lucky enough to find the prescription for my condition at the Starry Plough in Berkeley.
I live just a few blocks from the Starry Plough (herein the Plough), so I count myself among the lucky who dip in here with some regularity. For the uninitiated, a picture of words seems appropriate. There was a mix of local regulars and hipsters making up the crowd, with plenty of facial hair (myself included) and carefully coifed â€˜dos to provide the quintessential hipster look. The Plough welcomed the crowd with its brick and wood paneling walls, decorated with a wide variety of revolutionaries, anti-corporate America slogans, and perhaps my favorite feature â€“ an oversized painting of the words of James Connollyâ€™s Revolutionary Song.
“Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary song, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movementâ€¦”
– James Connolly, Revolutionary Song
This captured the feeling of the evening. Not so revolutionary as â€œWe are here to change the world!â€ but more â€œWe are here to change this moment.â€ As I noticed that groups of people were forming and this was a much tighter circle that I first imagined, it became clear to me that this was a moment this group of people was going to collectively determine the outcome, and not leave to the perils of fate. It was now time to meet the Gold Robot Records family â€“ or at least three of its bands.
First up to claim their piece of the evening: Sweetie. 3 parts dude, 2 parts lady, but all unabashed, straight to the point indie pop. Sweetie is quite the appropriate name for these guys (and gals) â€“ their songs are short and, well, sweet. Enough so that they were able to pack eight songs into an openerâ€™s set.
Sweetie opened up with a solid vamp number that introduced to them with their often melancholic vocals, two part harmonies, and taste for synchronized stop-starts. They immediately bolstered their cred with a cover of Beckâ€™s Gamma Ray, spiced up with one of my favorite drum sounds, rim clicks (vastly underused and underappreciated). By this time they worked out a few mixing issues with sound guy, so now the keyboards cut through much better. They made sure to perform the two tracks from their Myspace page, â€œBuildingâ€ and â€œSaturdays,â€ both well written catchy numbers. About the fifth song into their set I saw something that would come to embody the familial attitude of the evening; a lone individual strolled up front and center with a beer in one hand and what looked to be a grilled cheese sandwich in the other, bobbing his head in time and finishing his sandwich, complemented by a few gulps of beer. At first I dismissed him as a friend of the band, but when it came time for the next band to take the stage I realized it was the guitarist/singer from The Parish. He was out there offering some love for those that are not only his friends, but also his siblings in the Gold Robot family.
A fresh beer and ten minutes later the stage was reset and along came The Parish. Right off the bat you could tell the musicianship of each member took a step up from Sweetie. The simple, straight up indie pop of Sweetie was balanced out with the rock and blues driven sound of The Parish. To be honest I wasnâ€™t that familiar with any of these groups prior to this evening, but if thereâ€™s one song that pulled me in, it was â€œDummy in Troubleâ€ by The Parish. It had an eerily similar vibe to Radioheadâ€™s â€œTalk Show Hostâ€, but with Radiohead clearly representing their side of the pond, The Parish provided an excellent American counterpoint in â€œDummy in Trouble.â€
No set would be complete without an homage to some music of yesteryear, and in this set it came in the form of a little doo-wop. The Parish didnâ€™t use a track like this as a stunt, but more of a way to make the audience to realize just how much they had jumped through the hoops of rock and roll stylings. They were well versed in the blues and rock, brought out a little tambourine, the aforementioned doo wop, and touched on some good olâ€™ Americana as well.
The crowd dipped a little before Lady Genius got on stage, but for those who stuck around, they were treated to a great show. The first thing to strike me was how much their lead singer (Kyle Williams) not only looked like a young Fred Schneider of the B-52â€™s, but also sounded like him as well. The most polished of the bands seen so far, the 1-2 combo of Kyle Williams and Ashley Brewer on keyboard/vocals/guitar (they both shared duties on all 3, even throwing in a touch of sleigh bells for good measure) was impressive. The quirkiness of Kyleâ€™s voice was always intriguing and never overbearing, while Ashley was doing all she could to contain her passion for this music (her success at doing this is debatable as she would start rocking out, gain control, and succumb to the rock once again). The keyboard had a more prominent role in Lady Genius than it did in The Parish or Sweetie and helped to round out their sound. A small equipment problem arose in the form of a broken guitar string, which was quickly remedied, but led to the umpteenth mention of somebody named â€œHunter.â€ I had to find out who this Hunter was. Lady Genius wrapped up a well put together set with â€œChristmas Timeâ€ being one of my favorite tunes. Now to discover the truth behind â€œHunterâ€â€¦
I talked with Graham, the drummer from The Parish between sets and he filled me in. Hunter is the proprietor of Gold Robot Records. It turns out that this is not so much a business venture of his as it is a friendship venture. I spoke with Hunter after the show and he explained to me that he canâ€™t guarantee these guys (Lady Genius, The Parish, Sweetie, etc.) much beyond an EP with accompanying mp3 downloads and a few shows here and there, but that he can and definitely will do that for them. â€œI just wanted to hear my friendsâ€™ music and maybe get some more people to hear it. Some of my friends are really good, and I like good music,â€ he explained with so much sincerity I could not help but be taken aback by how good of friends everyone really was.
As it stands now, Hunter and I are going to grab drinks some time in the next couple weeks to just talk Bay Area music and shoot the proverbial shit. If Iâ€™m lucky Iâ€™ll meet some more of his friends who make great music.