I last saw Craft Spells open for Beach Fossils at DC9 on a spectacular evening early this spring. Much as I loved Beach Fossils, though, the real joy of that night came from the out-of-nowhere genius of Craft Spells. Now, three months later, the question would be – can Craft Spells headline a gig? The answer is a resounding yes. Led by the (still) impossibly young-looking Justin Paul Vallesteros, the Spells transported the entire Black Cat Back Stage to some impossible dream of 1982, when Altered Images were a chart band, Bobby Gillespie was still in the Wake, and buoyant bass-driven guitar pop was the sound of the underground.
First to the openers: local act Race of Robots confused me greatly. Their sound jumps around from the Animal Collective/Washed Out-esque bleached-out pop of “Getting High” and “Lucid Work” to d.i.y. R’n’B of “Only You” and “Go Slow” to the heavenly, winsome electro beauty of “You Know.” I don’t say this often, but guys, pick a genre – any of them – and stick with it. As it is, I find them alternatingly awesome and deeply annoying, and spend a good deal of the set in the Red Room.
Gardens and Villa from Santa Barbara were up next. This five-piece is another confusing band – heavily featuring goofy and loose beats, flute solos and falsetto vocals, mixed between songs of dark guitar intensity, reminiscent of the Boxer Rebellion or Editors. I feel like there’s a theme here – bands that can’t decide whether to embrace their skill-set or undermine it through irony – but again, I’m alternately pleased and pissed off at the wares on display. The audience doesn’t seem to mind, and the band even seem to win a fair percentage of the crowd over in the end, but I’m hard pressed to capture the spirit afterwards. For instance, the songs they feature on their Myspace page simply do not live up to any of my positive memories from their set. I buy a single against my better judgment and hope their talent wins out over their musical self-deprecation in the end.
Craft Spells are up next, and the relief in the packed crowd is palpable. Sound-wise, I knew what to expect. This is a band that doesn’t simply wear their influences on their sleeve – they make music as though they came up with the jangly-pop 1980s indie genre all by themselves. We know they didn’t, but with pop hooks this effortless and ebullience this infectious, I can forget that I ever heard anything like them before. Justin is growing strongly into his role as the lead man, as a singer, a musician, and a focal point. They start off with the impossibly winning “Scandinavian Crush,” prompting the first sing-along of the night. They follow with the buoyant “Your Tomb” and “From the Morning Heat,” the bass and drums galloping forward.
More and more people crowd into the Back Stage and dance up front, standing on the benches and stools to get a better view of the crowd. This, despite the oppressive heat, is a moment for us all. It’s four out of four from the album, then, with “Beauty Above All,” before they break into their most famous (justifiably) single, “After the Moment.” Justin leaps into the audience as they dance ecstatically around him before he jumps back up to finish the song. I’m reminded of the best moments of the Black Kids combined with the Pains of Being Pure at Heart in a simpler, happier place than either take me. “Love Well Spent” is next, followed by the New Order-esque (by that I mean side one, PC&L, natch) “The Fog Rose High.”
I’m marveling at the excellence of the songs before me. Each is instantly memorable, each is winning as a perfect (humidity-free) summer day; and Justin is reveling in the attention, exchanging banter with the kids up front and the rest of the band. Then comes a crowning moment of glory, the Chills-inflected guitar intro to “Party Talk,” chiming beautifully before sending the audience into a dancing frenzy. They close with the soft caress of “You Should Close the Door,” leaving me musing wistfully for what could be next for Craft Spells. I think the introduction of a keyboard player live and maybe a female backup singer might be all that stands between them and a leap into mainstream success, TV and movie soundtracks, and duets with Florence. I wish them all the best – they deserve it. They made my 41st birthday wonderful.