My first experience at Oakland’s Starline Social Club did not get off to a smooth start. The event page for Allah-Las’ performance at the venue this past Saturday listed that the show would begin at 9 pm and conclude at 11, which gave me the — admittedly unrealistic — expectation of the headliner coming on before 10 and myself returning home at a reasonable hour. I would later learn that Allah-Las was not scheduled to go on until 10:45, an unfortunate surprise only made more irksome by the nearly half hour ordeal that was waiting in line to merely get inside the venue. Suffice to say, my first impression of Starline was unenthusiastic at best.
The physical space itself lies above a neat-seeming bar and looks to be a perfect square, with a corner stage and balcony above to hold the soundboard and engineer. The sound system looked thin, but was capable of projecting a surprisingly hefty, if not somewhat flat, volume across the room. The gradually stewing body heat was enough of an indication that the event had sold out, but that fact was also clearly evident from the booming chatter of the large gathering that came out to see the Los Angeles quartet perform. The conversation did not subside until the moment Allah-Las was to set foot on the stage, which was unfortunate for Guy Blakeslee, the evening’s opener, who commented about how his solo acoustic guitar performance was being drowned out. Luckily Blakeslee, who Allah-Las noted they are big fans of, professionally powered through — highlighting his set with a practically isolated vocal take of “Green, Green Rocky Road,” an old folk tune that perked the ears of many in the crowd and finally got them listening.
When it proved time for Allah-Las to make their entrance, the band members got in place to fit on a semi-insufficiently sized stage (the keyboardist had to be set aside throughout the performance on a lower wing to the left of the crowd). The first thing I immediately noticed was that Allah-Las is a rather unspectacular-looking ensemble — the most interesting visual being the slight resemblance between the lead singer and Bob Pinciotti from That ‘70s Show. The second thing I picked up on was how much the band sounded like their records. This is more of a reflection of the quality of the band’s recording process than a knock against their live performance. Their two studio albums are both impeccably rich in clarity — you can almost hear the collapsing grains of sand that their guitars seem to surf over — and the same all-encompassing garage-in-a-desert aura came across in person just as mystifyingly.
The most notable observation I had was how consistent Allah-Las are as songwriters. The band basically ran through one song over and over again during the night — but damn is it one hell of a tune. Their tempos rarely change, and neither does the rhythm in which they strum their guitars. They always accent their melodies right on cue and their riffs come across as variations on the same scales. The repetition could become tired after some time, but it also bred a sense of comfort. Songs blurred into one another, but that didn’t seem to matter to a crowd intent on mid-tempo moshing to the bands jangly bounce and airy harmonies.
So while I couldn’t name more than a few songs — and often misrecognized a song I didn’t know for one I did — none of that really quite mattered. Allah-Las have perfected a musical mood, one with a distinct sonic atmosphere that recalls the best of the past while still meeting the needs of modern tastes. Saturday’s crowd called to mind that of a Burger Records concert — predominantly white and carefully careless, ready to fully embrace what’s on stage for its immediacy and dexterity. The performance was not one of many highs or lows, for better or worse. Instead it was relatively consistent the whole way through — a better than average reliability, but one that threatened to flat-line. Individually each song the band performed worked as A-grade material, but taken as a whole it wound up resulting in a solid, and well-appreciated, B.