Telegraph Canyon - Photo by Ben Thorne
On a rainy Tuesday night, I headed out to the Hotel Utah to catch Telegraph Canyon and Last of the Blacksmiths. It was a night out with friends to watch friends play music, and while the camaraderie was indeed great, it was matched by the quality of the music. The Hotel Utah is a great little venue, too, one that I do not visit often enough. Its intimate, multi-tiered space was perfect for the show, inviting the audience to get as close as they wished, with some even going as far as hanging over the balcony railing.

[audio:] Last of the Blacksmiths – “Giving Up”

I arrived just as Marabelle Phoenix was beginning their set. Unfortunately, hunger and “hey, how are you?”‘s meant I didn’t actually see them play. The band sounded good from the bar, lo-fi and insistent, and they had a nice, attentive crowd. The lead vocalist reminded me of a garagey, less-drawly Lucinda Williams, and there was a playful, loose feeling between the instruments. The fact that I sat and ate dinner instead of watching their set had everything to do with hunger pangs and nothing to do with anything else.

I am definitely biased in favor of Telegraph Canyon, having had a chance to spend a decent amount of time with them over the past couple of years in and around their home of Ft. Worth, Texas, and in San Francisco. They are six of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet, and if that was where it stopped, I would still attend as many of their shows as possible.

Good news, though: they put on quite a show. Multi-instrumentalist Erik Wolfe and violinist Tamara Cauble wove soaring lead lines over drums, bass, keys, mandolin, guitar and banjo as the group swelled and crashed through a rollicking set that included a number of cuts from their upcoming album. Lead singer Chris Johnson’s lyrics seem to ask more questions than they answer, and his distinct, plaintive voice lends an immediately identifiable feeling to even the simplest of sentiments.

At times quiet and contemplative, then explosive and cathartic, the band’s densely layered, dynamic sound owes as much to the players’ familiarity with their instruments as it does to their familiarity with each other. It’s a pleasure to watch a band that actually plays together, because they end up transcending their individual skills and creating something much more interesting. Plus, try to mess with this beard [See above photo of the beard in question]. You can’t.

San Francisco’s Last of the Blacksmiths, who recently welcomed drummer Kris Branco (of El Capitan) into the fold to replace departed founding member Bert Garibay, capped off the evening. While Garibay’s musical influence can still be heard in several of the Blacksmiths’ compositions, and the band made several dedications to their friend throughout their set, they did not set about lamenting what was lost. Rather, the band showcased a renewed vigor and impressive cohesion as they played through a wealth of new(ish) material.

Yet another band that really plays well together, the Blacksmiths’ moody, vibey compositions were an excercise in musical restraint, with drums and bass pulsing under focused and tasteful key and guitar work. The band locked into some fantastic rhythms, and a number of their newer songs featured a decidedly funky and more-uptempo feel. As always, the vocal interplay between Nathan Wanta, Nigel Pavao, and Greg Gheorghiu was beautiful, displaying sides of breathy longing and strong, triple harmonies. There were a number of charming moments during the set, from Wanta stating that the band “miss[ed] Bert,” to the fine “Everybody Up There,” a song adapted from a poem written by Wanta’s grandfather (for other such songs, check out both their self-titled and Young Family Song albums), to Wanta kicking a stage monitor onto a photographer. (This actually happened, though it was much more accidental and slow-motion, and much less spoiled rock star, than my initial description may make it sound.) The crowd, for their part, sat transfixed throughout the set and applauded louder after every song, until the band ended with their Garibay-arranged version of Terry Allen’s “Dogwood.”

The quality of the independent music coming through and from the Bay Area is remarkable for its diversity, depth, and breadth. This rainy Tuesday at the Utah was no exception. If anything, it made a strong case to go out again on any night that may seem better-suited for staying home.