all words: Colin Wilhelm
At the end of Moon Taxi’s Sunday night set at the Red Palace, preceded by Robin Smith of Very Small, one got the sense that the night was over merely because they’d exhausted the styles they’d chosen to throw at an unsuspecting audience. Both acts could be easily (yet superficially) categorized: Smith (in solo form) as Dashboard Confessional-flavored emo, Moon Taxi as a jammy prog rock band. However both pleasantly surprised by bringing genre-bending ranges of influences to their performances, from Smith’s somehow appropriate bongos and Latin beats to Moon Taxi’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks approach.
Smith mostly did stripped down material from his DC-based band Very Small, a group in defiance of categorization. Smith performed much of his set as barebones as possible: just the man and his guitar. Given the nature of Very Small (they’re at times as proggy as Moon Taxi…which is to say very) this didn’t seem like a natural choice for Smith, yet he made it work. Certainly it highlighted different points of Small’s music; the word ‘thoughtful’ kept coming to mind for lyrics, arrangement, performance. Very Small relies much on the drive it creates; performing a solo set takes much of that away, and at times did lead to a recitalish atmosphere before Smith brought on bandmate Aaron Mann to bongo, starting with a graceful, personal cover of Animal Collective’s “Bluish”. Mann’s bongos, performed whilst wearing a shirt, in stark contrast to the classical bongoing style known as “McConaugheying”, brought a mellow energy to the set. On their closing song “ánimo” they sounded much like Mars Volta on their highest dosages of Adderall (not in small part due to the shouted Spanish lyrics) bringing their night to a close with an understated dynamism.
Smith and Mann’s work in their “day” band clearly showed; Smith’s electric guitar interplayed with Mann’s drumming almost as well as their vocals. They harmonized so beautifully you’d have thought they were Brian Wilson’s bastard children. Smith’s unafraid to use the full range of his voice, and he does so well, giving “Said and Done”, another Latin-beated song, a haunting and high-reaching wordless vocal introduction.
Like Very Small, Moon Taxi thrives off the oft-frenetic musical inertia they create. Should the band be personified, they’d take the form of the preternaturally gifted yet undersized kid on your high school sports team, the one who tries to impress everyone by doing tricks you couldn’t dream of with a dorky yet slightly endearing enthusiasm. Yes, Moon Taxi is a jam progrock band, but even the genre’s detractors likely won’t find them obnoxious, overly technical, or inaccessible, sins of all the bands that make people’s eyes roll, from Yes to Genesis to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Moon Taxi has fun; that’s how they’ve built a small but loyal following in the South, mostly playing college gigs. Though technically gifted, they show a joy and showmanship missing from the worst offenders of bad progrock; their second song in they set a tone by goofily imitating the animatronic performers of Chuck E. Cheese or “It’s a Small World After All” while eschewing aggressive instrumentations straight out of prog’s 70s heyday, and just two minutes before they had started the same song with a flowery, meandering guitar riff reminiscent of a (focused) Grateful Dead.
It’s hard to tell where Moon Taxi’s influences begin and end. They hurl more musical motifs at you than anyone this side of Girltalk as well; I counted a range of inspirations as wide and varied as funk, Southern rock, Americana rock, New Orelans jazz and roots rock, and Radiohead’s “Creep” (which they covered with a forgotten first verse, uptempo drums, and an xylophonish-organ affected keyboard, if that makes any sense whatsoever); all in addition to the previously mentioned prog and jam.
The readily apparent technical strength of every member makes this possible and gives them an extremely large sound. Anyone who has been to the Red Palace will know the performance space, while not cramped, is not especially big, yet it may as well have been Merriweather Post Pavilion the way their sound expanded. A lot of that’s due to good sound, but also the confidence and proficiency of each member. There’s no weak link turned down or drowned out by the guys with skill, they all have it, and they use it as one, stopping on a dime one minute and accelerating at breakneck speed the next.
If there’s a criticism of Moon Taxi it’s that all those distinct sounds, all that skillfulness, leave one struggling to remember exactly what they sound like, and thus throwing out all nuance and focusing on the prog rock that provides the connective tissue to their sound, which ends with you describing them to your friends as, “this jam band I once saw at the Sigma Nu house”.
Still, if you took that unpretentiously nerdy showmanship and eclecticism away, you’d be taking away the heart and soul of the band away, effectively shoving that dorky kid on your team into a locker.