All words: Marie Formica — All photos: Joy Asico
Canadian artist Jesse Marchant, known as JBM, walked out on stage with a band. He said merely, “Thank you for coming early,” and broke into song. A Radiohead flavor seeped through the first few songs (“Ferry” especially), although Marchant’s voice is one belonging to a younger David Byrne. Songs played from “Stray Ashes,” the new album that debuted yesterday, have a sad, lonely feeling to them. It was like a soundtrack to a movie about an unsuccessful colony settlement on Mars. Songs take the air out of the room, kill children and crops. Ok, I’m being dramatic. The first few songs were a visceral exercise in minimalism.
Marchant and the band created a sparse, isolated feeling by making selective use of the drum kit on “Winter Ghosts.” Jangling, discordant melodies were accompanied variously by the four piece band. At one point, there was a solo, but it was disguised as part of a song– hardly distinguishable from the rest of the melody but for the feeling. “Only Now” was a highlight in the performance: persistent piano accompanied by distant guitar and drumming so faint it could have been your heart pounding in your ears. A little postmodern rock got sprinkled in with “You Always Keep Around” when a whining, ethereal slide guitar part entered the mix. It was almost country, if not for the long slow guitar lines at the beginning of the track. The standout song of the set was “Moonwatcher” because it used that minimal, minor style and yet, the entire band was involved at once. There was a lot of volume, figuratively and literally, enthusiasm was no longer muted. The last couple songs, “Crooked Branches” and “Forests” especially, used a more familiar style, a part folk part country ballad. At that point, the audience turned away and started talking, not cruelly, but because the songs became closer to the soundtrack of their lives, rather than a standout art piece.
Damien Jurado arrived onstage with an all-beard backup band. Jurado himself was clean shaven, all jowls and plaid. The Seattle native brought a huge presence onstage, whether he realized it or not. Starting the set off with “Nothing in the News,” a strong track off the 2012 album “Maraqopa,” there is an immediate flavor of 60’s rock bands, which is new to me in recent music. I haven’t heard many bands that make so much use of small walking guitar solos between lyrics, washed out drums, even a freewheeling Doors-style synth organ playing along the whole time.
There was much rocking out in this set, and it was refreshing. As a band, by the way, this was the jammingest fake-out jam band I’ve ever seen. You don’t expect the surprise jams. You’re listening to a straight up melodic folk song guided by an acoustic guitar and then BAM there’s an Allman style jam, right in the middle of it.
But then, a curious change occurred. Many stylistic mutations pervaded, I would come to find. Jurado’s history is long (he started playing in 1989) and varied and actually impressive, but he wouldn’t let you know that. He looked over the crowd at one point, enthusiastically telling us he was happy that many attended. Looking out at a room of over a hundred people, he mused on past performances at the Black Cat: “The last time I played here, I played to the doorman, barkeep and the sound guy, who left halfway through my set. … I’m all about the long road.”
In the slower “This Time Next Year,” the keyboard had a new effect, not unlike what you might hear in an old film when something spooky is about to occur. Jurado’s familiar narrative lyrics made it in: “I heard you call my name / You were outside the door / How did I not hear you before?” And then, in “Falling to the Ground,” the style turned straight up pop. Jurado’s voice rang out clear and honest and somewhat more falsetto than before, accompanied by a simple surf-rock style stroke of the guitar and some light accentuations of the other instruments.
After a dozen songs with the band, Jurado played a few songs on his own. His eyes rolled back in his head when he began singing, out of enthusiasm for the music I assume since he was calm and focused talking to us, all the while incessantly tuning his guitar. Straightforward pretty picking marked the solo playing of “Ohio” (1999) and “So On, Nevada” (2012) among other tracks. Without the band, the style felt more similar, regardless of when the song was written in Jurado’s career. There is an earnestness and solid songwriting behind all Jurado’s creations. The show ended the best way it could, Jurado playing alone there in the Black Cat, for the doorman, the barkeep, the sound guy and us.