Nothing enhances the warmth and beauty of indie pop quite like acres and acres of wood paneling. Joyously, Albany has seen fit to bless us with the Ivy Room, a comforting aural glob of mashed potatoes plopped down amid the sprawl of San Pablo Avenue, there to embrace and soothe us when the too-often-cold, sterile SF concert experience becomes too much to bear.
Here one can guzzle PBR and watch playoff football replays in peace. One can marvel at the doorman, who appears to be wearing both a gas station attendant's uniform and a bow tie. And one can tango with a pinball machine old enough to remember the Summer of Love, or at least the Nuclear Winter of Disco. The cozy, Grandma's-rec-room vibe of the Ivy splendidly complemented a recent Saturday night's Sonny Smith/Rogue Wave/Our Lady of the Highway triple bill -- local acts that don't appear to be enjoying themselves at all, appear to be enjoying themselves just fine, and appear to be enjoying themselves to a psychotic degree, respectively.
We'll start, as the show did, with Sonny. He's a bit of a curmudgeon.
Smith writes rambling, deceptively half-assed-sounding acoustic folk songs that read like gothic short stories Flannery O'Connor wasn't enough of a badass to write. A very Super Tough Guy sort of thing: The phrase "wrong side of town" shows up a lot, and you very well might hear about "the chalk-line silhouette of a dead prostitute" before the drums even kick in, or rather stumble in. Much of Sonny's set consisted of him mumbling and scraping an acoustic guitar while a frizzy-haired dude distractedly whacked a drum kit: The two instruments enjoyed a sort of on-again-off-again high-school love affair with each other. Not exactly laser- precise, this.
But perhaps a sense of entropy is part of the appeal: Smith sounded as if the laws of natural selection were about to eliminate his species entirely as he staggered through early tunes about bad cops, sad waitresses, and "the senseless murder of the nicest guy in town." Interesting, but sort of a one-trick folk eccentric pony compared with his recorded stuff -- Sonny's recent disc this is my story, this is my song vibrates with merry melodies and screwball wit. That tune about wanting to be one of the X-Men and/or the world's greatest lover is priceless.
But out of nowhere the screwball stuff abruptly appeared: A stand-up bass player materialized to haphazardly glue the sound together, and Smith pounded out an epic tune loaded with baseball metaphors, wacked-out rhymes, and a Tom Waitsian swing that finally brought the room to life. Sonny concluded the affair by taking the pitcher's mound, staring down his romantic rival at bat, and earning a line drive to the mouth for his trouble.
Last line: "There's only one thing to do/And that's fuck it/Go home."
Playing second but batting cleanup was Rogue Wave, tremendously hyped indie popsters who commanded the Ivy Room version of a packed house, which dissolved the minute the set ended with some impromptu onstage dental work.
It's not hard to understand why everyone's in love with this cheerily melancholy quartet: Its simple pop hooks slide into military-industrial-complex-sized choruses and huge, sweeping, sweep-your-girlfriend-off-her-feet-and-kick-down-your-hotel-room-door crescendos. Clean, well-lit, shiny, happy. The dinky keyboard riffs and lead guitar lines mesh seamlessly, while the occasional four-part vocal harmonies don't go overboard and get all Pet Sounds on your ass.
You can argue the oversimplicity of all this -- the lyric fragment "bird on a wire," after all, is an image so evocative Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn made a doofy comedy about it. But even snooty literati types gotta admit that "you and me together" and "you and me forever" make a great rhyme.
Rogue Wave's greatest accomplishment lies in the joy these kids display onstage -- a very quiet but very prominent attraction to each other and affection for the resulting music, as though, you know, they actually enjoy being in a band together. Don't go to an Interpol show looking for that sort of thing.
A little onstage childlike glee can work wonders: Guitarist Graham LeBron officially ended the set by excitedly slipping and cracking his teeth on the mic as he thanked us for listening. Given all the disinterested "So, Ahhnuld's your governor now, huh?" stage banter we've endured lately, we'll take a good "Hey, tha--WHACK. Ow!" any day.
It's frankly amazing that Our Lady of the Highway frontman Dominic East didn't injure himself in a similar manner. The dude is positively manic, strumming his acoustic guitar with an endless series of bombastically goofy expressions flashing across his face, while often hopping and jerking around for maximum comedic effect.
If he jumped up on the bar and started dancin' to "Tequila," you'd swear to Christ homeboy was Pee-Wee Herman.
What makes this doubly strange is that Dominic appears to sing songs solely about romantic desolation, heartbreak, and self-medication: He began the set braying "Lord, stop the bar/I wanna get off" and ended it sweetly crooning, "You still like boys in all of my dreams." As a quartet, Our Lady of the Highway floats these post-breakup moans atop swirling alt.country tunes reminiscent of R.E.M. in the good ol' days -- these Oakland cats fit the bill perfectly at the American Music Club reunion show back in August.
In fact, Dominic's bandmates all play the Mike Mills role: quiet instrumental excellence and the occasional sweet vocal harmony, but all delivered with a deference to the flailing frontman's odd star power. Dominic's I'm-so-happy-to-be-singing-this-incredibly-sad-song mannerisms are super-bizarre but oddly appealing, and he clearly takes 'em seriously. At one point between songs he literally tuned his face, hesitantly delivering the next song's first line -- "It's like lightning" -- before shaking it off, cocking his head to an almost perpendicular angle, brightening his already beatific facial expression a couple thousand watts, and trying again: "It's like lightning."
It's hard to resist such melancholy delivered with such joy or such a gentlemanly air. After the first tune a woman in the crowd loudly dropped or otherwise mangled her drink, and Dominic quickly fished a free drink ticket from his pocket and skipped offstage to hand it to her.
Moments later he was wistfully reminiscing about a first kiss: "It was raining/It was a Tuesday/You wore green/And bitch I'll cripple you/Again/I'll cripple you/Again."
It's the quiet ones you have to watch out for, folks, and the weirdly giddy ones you really have to watch out for. Here in the Ivy Room's wood-paneled womb, ain't nothing what it seems.
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