all photos: Brandon Hirsch
all words: Phil Runco
“Thank you, my dears. Thank you.”
Alasdair MacLean paused to politely thank the crowd a song into The Clientele’s set Tuesday night. The frontman may have been standing before the nearly full music hall of the Black Cat, but his voice, drenched in reverb, echoed empty and distant, as if three rooms away.
The Clientele’s love affair with reverb is well-established. While the band’s aesthetic opened up over the past decade – incorporating flourishes of strings and horns, cribbing elements of Bossa Nova and even disco – the vocal effect has remain firmly entrenched. Or perhaps it’s inseparable from the band’s unshakably spectral DNA.
Whether crutch or not, reverb draped the room in the warmth of MacLean’s near whisper when he sang. But when he spoke the effect was cavernous, creating an odd distance between the singer and his audience. The dichotomy was reflective of the night as a whole: while little substantively changed, the performance was alternately intimate and detached.
The Clientele led with two of its sprightlier entries: “Since K Got Over Me”, where MacLean’s rainy day musings were offset by a 60s-nodding pop guitar line and fills of xylophone and violin, and “Here Comes The Phantom”, which bounced along on an arrangement of plunky keyboard and buoyant bass. Yet, if the band was intending to jumpstart the show, the attempt didn’t quite connect. The former couldn’t shake a certain tentativeness, and the latter, with its exuberant declarations (“My heart is singing like a violin!”), has never been a natural fit for MacLean’s reserved disposition.
The band settled into its skin as it drew from 2009’s Bonfires on the Heath for the core of its set. The album was greeted last fall with somewhat of a collective shrug. Such is the inevitable price of consistency. But Bonfires stands as an album remarkable for its richness of texture, as woozy and warm as the early fall nights MacLean depicts.
Performed live, the songs took on an even more languid character. During “Bonfires on the Heath” and “Harvest Time” Mel Draisey’s keyboard floated high in the mix, coating the songs in a swoony haze and at times recalling the lava lamp vibe of Air’s Virgin Suicides soundtrack. Young boys wrapped arms around their girls and swayed in unison. Full-fledged make-outs followed.
The punchier Bonfires songs benefitted from arrangements that grew tighter in the absence of horns, which often overwhelmed the compositions on record. Mark Keen’s insistent drumming drove “I Wonder Who We Are” – a song that shared similar Monkees territory as “Here Comes the Phantom” with greater success – and drew “I Know I Will See Your Face” together whenever each element seemed about to drift into its own orbit.
The Clientele revisited older material later, but its interest had begun to wane. While the band must surely be accustomed to demure audiences, those gathered at Black Cat approached comatose. “Washington, DC,” MacLean said, attempting to engage the crowd. An awkward silence hung in the air. “That’s you,” he gently reminded them.
Warm yet detached, he learned, his audience could play as well.
The front half of the double bill belonged to Vetiver. The band, led by singer-songwriter leader Andy Cabic, once fit neatly into the narrative of artists who stepped into relative prominence citing inspiration from late 60s English psychedelic folk movement. Six years later, the bands it shared that stage with – most notably Joanna Newsome and friend Devendra Banhart – have progressed past those influences while Cabic has been content to tread water, returning again and again to them, in addition to early 70s west coast soft rock.
All of which isn’t to suggest that Cabic’s music isn’t enjoyable. On the contrary, there few traditions less inherently pleasant than laidback folk rock to mine, and Cabic’s voice, gentle and reassuring, transfered seamlessly to a live setting. But Vetiver’s music stays so comfortably within certain confines that the results rarely transcend more than homage.
The band set an easy course early, locking into twangy shuffles that were complemented with sunny background harmonies and the occasional studied solo from the lead guitarist, a ringer for a young Art Garfunkel. At its best, Vetiver channeled Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds with ease.
Later, the band moved to moodier territory. Songs grew longer and jammy, and the neo-hippies began to noodle in excitement. The band seemed to let loose more during these moments, but with Vetiver it’s hard to shake the feeling that even that might be rehearsed.