all words: William Alberque
all photos: Shannon Yazurlo
I will admit to a degree of trepidation at heading to the Rock n Roll Hotel this past Saturday. Tennis provided my favorite musical moment of 2010 – as detailed in my panegyric to them for BYT’s year-end round-up – so clearly there was nowhere to go but down. I discovered them by chance, showing up early to a show at Hi-Dive in Denver where they were playing first on a three-band bill – and, with no expectations, I was blown away. But could they deliver at a headline show at RnR? And, would anyone know if they did – would it be like Concretes, playing their hearts out to an empty room, or like Radio Dept., going through the motions for a sold-out house?
Le Sera opened the evening – I had been tipped off that they were well worth seeing. As a Vivian Girls side-project (Katy Goodman, touring with two guitarists and a drummer), I dialed my expectations down a bit (I’ve always found them a bit underwhelming). Surprisingly, La Sera play incredibly winning American guitar indie –a bit like a relaxed Pixies with Blondie on vocals. I say the Pixies as a reference realizing that’s problematic; I mean that I hear so much of the Pixies approach to melody and chord progression in their songs. More than one recalled “Here Comes Your Man” or “Gigantic,” though without sounding at all plagiarized due to the accomplished vocals and far more melodic approach to the melodies.
“Devil’s Heart Grow Gold” stays in my mind as a standout from their set, with Goodman swaying and strumming her bass, her face framed by the trademark bangs (see the cover of the eponymous debut album) and a bit of a woozy “Where is My Mind” vibe carrying through. The songs were slightly less ethereal than I thought – again, like the Pixies, La Sera makes songs as though shoegaze never happened. Indeed, several songs have a Chills-like arabesque flourish that finely differentiates them from anything in the Vivian Girls/Dum Dum Girls, lo-fi oeuvre.
Goodman was sick with the flu – telling us at one point that the next song was about dying, which was how they all felt, and saying they had overstocked on towels, water, and books to try to feel better. At this point, one of the guitarists joined in on backup vocals, and I realized that was the only missing element. Each of the songs could have used strong backup vocals to highlight the pretty melodies, and when they did use a full backing track to bolster her vocals towards the end. They ended the set with a cover, “Dedicated to the One I Love,” providing the perfect close to a very good set. Just sort out the backing vocals, and they’ll be even better.
The sold-out Hotel (whew) similarly was appreciative, and I made a bee-line for the front for Tennis. The room was as crowded as I’ve seen it, and I could hardly think for anticipation.
Tennis took the stage unobtrusively, looking like they’d just come in from sailing – Alaina, fetching with her trademark curly blond tresses, and Patrick in white jeans, a polo shirt and tasseled loafers (!) – and proceeded to function as their own roadies, setting up their own equipment (they don’t have folks to do that for them that yet). Tennis were perfect Saturday night, better than I could have hoped, and I felt immense relief and pride before giving way to utter joy at an amazing performance by a band that is only just beginning to realize their potential.
Tennis only have ten songs recorded, total – all the tracks from the cassette and singles are revisited on the album Cape Dory – but what a ten songs! These really are exquisite creations, crystalline creations of purest beauty, replete with memorable hooks, gorgeous turns of phrase and unexpected climbing melodies and countermelodies, each perfect by itself, but in toto, they have a narcotic effect that leaves me breathless and euphoric. My lingering trepidation was blown away within moments of the opening song, Seafarer, followed by the resplendent and chiming Take Me Somewhere.
Alaina apologizes for her voice – she, too, is sick, and says she sounds a bit like Janis Joplin, so tonight’s performance will sound like a Tennis cover band. The joke is cute, but probably prophetic – I think people will be covering these songs for quite some time – but misplaced. She is perfect tonight. Cape Dory causes shouts of joy – it is so good live, I can hardly believe I’m hearing an improvement on the album. They break into a new song (New Year), with Stereolab-ish keyboards, big jangling guitars, and tight drums. This three-piece is exquisitely tuned and in tune with each other and the audience, with Pat’s guitars matching the soaring vocals of Alaina and the drums of – I think it’s James Barone? – following along like a happy puppy.
Pigeon (she says it’s her favorite song) next, and then a new song called Robin, which she sheepishly informs us it’s about a baby bird they saved. Good lord. With any other band, the cute overload will kill me (or, more likely, send me on a killing spree), but I can’t help but smile and laugh and take note. She remembered playing a house party in DC, which led to someone requesting Baltimore. She said the song was about when they tried to move their and find jobs – they failed, thankfully for us – and dedicated it to the girl who asked for it. The girl in the audience looked like she’d just touched Tom Jones, giddy with happiness, and half the crowd sang along – how do they know the lyrics already??!
They followed with Bimini Bay and South Carolina (soaring, climbing, gorgeous vocals – despite her illness), Long Boat Pass, and Waterbirds before Alaina asked for volunteers to provide the backing vocals on Marathon. This was the real high point of the show – my favorite song of theirs – and Jennifer Bress, my friend and companion for the night, jumped up along with one other girl from the crowd. It was one amazing moment in an evening of wonder. One more new song (Hard Times), with a much harder sound to it, and, as they finished, I was floating, so happy, so fulfilled. I wished we could have sat down with them, but they were sick, and I had to respect that. Best wishes to them, and I can’t wait until they come back.