Photos by: Nicole Browner
Earlier this year, I attended one of those Brightblack Morning Light showcases at Cafe Du Nord. It was so resolutely weird (both good and bad weird), that in hindsight, it has proven to be a personal turning point for my overall consideration of the Bay Area’s so-called “freak folk” or your ‘term of choice’ movement. Symbolically, at least.
Like a plume of smoke, the 10 mph soothing and repetitive soul stoned picnic that is Brightblack, wafted over a suspiciously passive audience, a great number of which funneled out the door before the set’s end. It was unfortunate, but not surprising. The energy was low, the music was slow, and it was after all, past midnight at a show in SF. That said, this was an “it” band less than year before this particular show. A band that perhaps embodied the spirit and future of evolving indie/major Matador.
I found my head rambling, in no particular order: “are these guys/gals really drifters?”, “are they blissfully unaware?”, “can urban dwellers in places like NY and SF continue to stroll with small animals wrapped around their feet, sporting quasi Native American regalia, and name-checking no name psych folk acts from their esteemed record collections while reconciling such natural environments?”, “are both Devandra Banhart and Joanna Newsom still dating Hollywood people?”, “where is, what is, or do we want a new Haight?”, and finally, “what is the new freak rock people”?, “Is it all the new lo-fi we swallow up (cuz it’s so raw man, and they’re not trying too hard), or the obsessive tinkering of any number of kid geniuses hailing from Brooklyn?”,
2009, June, enter Sleepy Sun. Hailing from Santa Cruz, where health food stores, edgy surfers, university students and bohemian street musicians and peddlers struggle to compete for real estate with the ascending techy, hybrid-driving urban sophisticates. Will the last quintessential, larger coastal beach town on the California coast preserve in the slightest? Tell me, is there still a trailer park on the UCSC campus? Does the school shrug its shoulders at a group of students who call themselves “woodsies” and live, well, in the woods? I’ll never know.
I will, though, recall seeing these kids from Santa Cruz for the first time. Not only because everyone in the Hall had a crush on them, but it was the way they wielded the double-edged sword of revivalist rock irony with genuine ethusiasm and talent. Some of their undulating tunes (like “Sleepy Son”, “Lord”) couldn’t save me from thinking of Brightblack (hence the rambling preface here), but SS would shed a layer of mellow for fuzzy rhythmic interludes, generating a lot more noise (as a Pitchfork reviewer recently noted in his positive review of Embrace).
To her credit, sometimes vocalist Rachel Williams constantly set the bar for the band’s onstage presence. That said, I think no one would have minded hearing her gorgeous pipes a bit more. Striking a quiet/loud dynamic can work well, if the crowd hangs with you in the those low motion moments, and fortunately for SS, they had the hometown crowd backing them hard. You could hear Rachel better at these times, and she and lead vocalist Bret Constantino were able to bring the band’s melodies to the forefront, distinguishing some of the “jams” from the promising songwriting.
The crowd warmed slowly but steadily to second support, Spindrift, who presented a Doors-laden pastiche of Western soundtrack flavored dirges, leaving the way for moody vocals to croon above the room’s mix. The band features a few veterans from an earlier era of revivalist rock in the indie scene (Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Warlocks), and as much as their experience benefits their well-groomed retro attack, they had their work cut out in trying to muster the attention of a younger crowd anticipating Sleepy Sun, who were not nearly appreciative enough of the band’s authentic renderings.
Opener, SF’s own Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound, showed no identity crisis whatsoever, putting forth a consistently solid offering of guitar and keyboard-driven psych rock, with reverberated vocals tucked nicely underneath. Their heavier side sounded like a cross of vintage Dinosaur Jr. and Boston’s underground psych hereoes, Major Stars. It’s refreshing to see a band play the material it obviously loves, and excecute on all levels.