As good as they are any time of day, Ash Reiter’s songs hit you like some kind of cinderblock when she performs live. Cinderblock inside a velvet casing, maybe, but still they come down relentless and hard. This is folk, but it’s folk brewed moderne, dipped in cold wave and some ska vibe. Think lovechild of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Rickie Lee Jones. That’s the idea that came to my mind, at least, when I saw the Oakland native perform one of her greatest songs, “Old Blue Eyes,” while revving up her cherry-red two-tone Eastwood Airline electric guitar. Acid folk, anyone? So I wasn’t actually surprised she’d never heard of Lonely Drifter Karen, whom I mentioned in passing during our conversation.
“She only looks likes she’s from Oregon,” joked Johan Alfsen, the bass player for Wave Array, the band that had the tough job of going up next at the venerable radical Gaelic institution otherwise known as the Starry Plough. This was a benefit to help install solar panels in Chilean towns ravaged by the recent earthquake, and all the bands were shakin’ the house, though none more-so than Ash Reiter, who does not have so much as one mediocre song in her repertoire. Like Nina Simone did, Ash teaches grade school, and like that cantankerous icon in her day, she’s a livewire on stage, something to revel in for the duration. I only wish some of the songs she performed at the Plough, like “Treasure Island” and “Moonlight Song,” were included on Paper Diamonds, her latest album, but you can’t have everything you want, that is unless you can have all of Ash Reiter. The title track alone has it all: multiple melodic configurations wrapped around each other like Russian dolls, inspired power chords, and a heady riff that crescendos and just keeps at it, until this reviewer was just aching to cry out: Give me love, Give me love, Give me lo-o-o-o-ve (and paper diamonds).
Ash Reiter’s eruptive brand of supercharged folk — one of her tracks is actually called “Supercharged” — is like a really good drug, more addictive than hillbilly heroine and Bloody Mary. The sheer artistry of her intoxicating lyrics, wrapped around so much raw musical talent, blows the mind. Her gig was really helped by the soft, sensitive percussions of Will Halsey, who was with Wave Array before he became the drummer for Ash Reiter (and then some). Other truly fantastic tracks on her latest album are “La Bahia,” a fanciful ode to staying home all day, and “Albatross,” in which the tireless exhortation go back to your cloud concerns a guy “who thought he was always right” that Ash Reiter dated at one point. And then there’s “Français,” the album opener, probably her sweetest, most unadorned song (try as I might, I couldn’t get the backstory for that one), with which she closed out her gig. Performed live, it became a desperately haunting ballad, though, one that enraptured the audience with its concentric coils of longing and angst. What is it about second-grade teachers, anyway?
Next to perform was Wave Array, and the crowd at the Plough was already simmering, to say the least. Restless feet were aching to go steady. And go steady they did, pumped up by the jams of Nich Pak on lead guitar and Johan Alfsen on bass. Cheapjack Moon, the band’s self-produced first album, is already getting heavy notice, and has hop-scotched up to the eleventh spot on UCLA Radio’s Top 30, right behind Black Eyed Peas’ The E.N.D. ’Nuff said? Not even close; based in its Pleasant Hill redoubt, the No Hassle Castle, where the band has set up its own recording studio, Wave Array is already hard at work on its second LP.
“Whether it is through jamming at the house or on the road, someone will come up with a palpable lick and the group will put it through twists and turns to explore it in different realms,” said Alfsen. “Then new parts start to create themselves and songs are born. The songs really do seem to take on a life of their own, we just pay attention, surrender by tapping into them as naturally as possible.”
We got to hear two songs from that last album, “Burned Out” and “Golden Girl.” I wasn’t necessarily as impressed with those two pieces as with most of the tracks on Cheapjack Moon, which the band actually seemed to perform with more chutzpah. Lead singer Strom Lee has a perfectly pitched voice, which is both mellow and warm. That’s fine if you want mellow and warm, but I’d like to hear the kind of diabolical intensity that makes for a great indie rock band, especially since Wave Array has the skills and the talent to make it happen. In fact, it’s precisely because the music is so complex, subtly layered, and comes together so seamlessly flush in what Alfsen accurately describes as “an array of various sound waves” that it requires a kind of spitfire to ignite it at times. Lee has a damn good voice, and he got the crowd rolling nicely, but I’d like to see a bit more of that inner demon.