There's a sense of community at East Bay rock shows. You see a lot of the same faces again and again -- musicians from other bands coming out to support their own. But it's rare that these shows take on quite the homey quality found at the record release party for Faun Fables' aptly named Family Album.
The early February Saturday night gig at Oakland Metro resembled a typical CD release party, in the sense that FF played most of the songs from Family Album -- the band's third disc and Drag City debut -- in order of appearance, in most cases with the recording's guest players in tow. But it was unusual in that you got a strong sense of being at a large but intimate gathering of family and friends, with guest performances arranged and introduced the way you might expect at a wedding or unusually significant birthday.
The difference here being that the performances were all really, really good.
"Welcome to a vast place," singer-songwriter Dawn "The Faun" McCarthy sang as she began the evening sitting behind a tall candle, clicking a teapot, and singing along to recorded drums. "If you find yourself alone on your birthday night, bake yourself a little cake and do this dance by candlelight," she added, doing an adorably jerky, girlish dance in her lacy pink dress and high black boots.
There's something haunting about McCarthy's husky voice -- earthy and unearthly at the same time -- that is brought out beautifully in her eerily offbeat original material. And while you can distinguish her songs from the creepy-funny ones penned by her partner, Idiot Flesh alum and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum member Nils Frykdahl, their style and sensibility (as well as their voices and acoustic guitars) fall perfectly in sync when they perform.
Nils -- decked out in a black dress and fedora, a particularly goaty beard, and long braids -- joined Dawn onstage for "Eyes of a Bird," a dreamy, hypnotically repetitive melody that spiraled upward, building into Dawn and Nils' ecstatic vocalizations. Robin Coomer lent some gorgeous, wailing vocals to "Poem 2" (a song that Dawn explained was actually written by a ghost), while Max Baloiar's glockenspiel lent a music-box air to the beautiful harmonies. Dawn's voice was also hauntingly impassioned on her bittersweet reminiscence of childhood, "A Mother and a Piano," as her and Nils' guitars plucked and strummed in unison.
At this point the mother in question, Michelina Tyrie, actually came out to play piano, in what would become a defining feature of the evening. At several points McCarthy and Frykdahl just sat back while kith and kin performed. After Michelina's lovely, evocative turn on classical piano, Frykdahl's mother Mickie told a funny, rambling story about telling the story of how Coyote made the world.
Nils then sang the delightfully sinister "Lucy Belle" -- an acoustic ballad about his neighbor's dog and the end of the world -- with a tender falsetto chorus and all the mythic bombast of heavy metal. But the song that followed really took the Metro crowd's breath away. With lyrics by Patti Mead (who introduced the song) in memory of her departed son, the ethereal "Joshua" was simply devastating: Dawn's aching vocals the tenderest tribute, Nils' flute capturing the joys and possibilities of childhood, and Marika Hughes' masterful cello driving home the heartache. After witnessing that, all we could do was take a deep breath and move on.
So Michelina returned to the piano to play Richard Hageman's "Do Not Go, My Love" -- singing in a lovely, crystal-clear voice -- before Nils and Dawn sang Frykdahl's creepy stalker murder ballad "Still Here," all loping rhythms, sad murmurs, and oddly romantic shrieks. Kirk Lombard followed that up by reading an absolutely hilarious story about his grandmother the showgirl; when people laughed after simply hearing the one-word title "Tall," he added, "See? You can't really lose in this warm setting." He was right about that.
The first half wrapped up with "Higher," a hilariously overstated church hymn sing-along with McCarthy in character as a brassy old biddy, her mom on church organ, and everyone in cheap wigs. The second set kicked off with some pounding piano by Dawn's brother Brian, who gave his sister her nickname when she was three and liked to run around in the altogether: "Dawn the Faun, runs around with no clothes on." Jim and Per Frykdahl, "The Men of the Frykdahl Painting Company," then read an amusing ode to Fix-All as a build-up to "Rising Din," Nils' goofy prognostication of death, which they insist on calling "The Fix-All Song," although the goop is only actually mentioned once -- though I suppose that's once more than in most songs.
McCarthy's jerky, clattering "Fear March" was followed by a commanding and insanely catchy (or perhaps catchingly insane) take on Brigitte Fontaine's "Eternelle," with percussion assistance from sister Sheila on drums and Mike Pukish on a wooden percussion frog. With bouncy guitar and jaunty flute, "Mouse Song" allowed Dawn to show off her formidable yodeling skills, followed by the tour de force "Carousel of Madonnas," a relentless, rapid-fire barrage of drama, majesty, and jagged rhythm. The singsong "Old and Light" followed, Nils' falsetto joining in perfectly singing-saw harmonies with Dawn's narcotic tones.
The evening ended as it began, with Dawn sitting alone and singing to disembodied instruments, her voice a little hoarse but all the more effective for that. It was a tidy and evocative ending, but odd as well, less because of her decision to perform to prerecorded tracks with a house full of musicians than because she began and ended the evening in solitude, when the overwhelming theme of the evening was one of togetherness.
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