I came to see Jeremy Messersmith, the crowd came to see The Mynabirds, but it was So-So Sailors that everyone was talking about after the show Saturday night at Slowdown Jr.
The room was only about half-full when Messersmith took the stage for a solo-acoustic set. In most cases, I’d be bummed about a solo set, especially from someone like Messersmith whose records are some of my favorites and are generally played with a full band. But business is business these days, and it’s expensive to haul a band around with you on tour (especially when no one knows who you are). Messersmith made the most of it, augmenting his guitar and voice with a series of effects pedals that nicely filled out the songs — magical pedals that created the effect of two-, three-, four-part harmony, pedals that provided rhythm tracks and pedals that created loops of vocals and guitar lines, all brought together like a modern-day one-man band. Even when he didn’t use the doo-dads, I enjoyed what I heard. Messersmith is an amazing songwriter who has a gift for creating gorgeous melodies and monster sing-along hooks. He also has a huge, high voice (imagine Ben Gibbard if Ben Gibbard could really sing). In addition to playing tunes off his new album and my favorite, The Silver City (download it now at jeremymessersmith.com), Messersmith did two covers — a Red House Painters-style version of “Norwegian Wood,” and his take on The Replacements’ “Skyway” (which also appears on Silver City). We need to get him back here soon (see photo), but with a full band and big amps to drown out the sea of audience chit-chat.
By the time he was done, the room was near capacity. I have no idea if this show was a sell-out, but it was a crush-mob. Next was the stage debut of So-So Sailors, a local supergroup of sorts, anchored by Chris Machmuller (Ladyfinger) on vocals and piano, Dan McCarthy (McCarthy Trenching) on Wurlitzer, Alex McManus (The Bruces) on guitar, Brendan Greene-Walsh (O’Leaver’s) on bass and the former drummer for Bloodcow (whose name I don’t know (Edit: It’s Dan Kemp)).
With Mach on the front end, I guess I was expecting something harsh, uptempo and loud. Instead we got slow, quiet and pretty. Beautiful at times; edgy and proggy at others. The faster, louder songs fell in line with the slowest moments of Ladyfinger. It was all very moody for the most part and different than anything that any of these guys have done before. Definitely not what I or probably anyone was expecting. One thing’s for certain, with this band — and this laid-back style of music — Mach has absolutely nowhere to hide. His voice is fully exposed for all to hear. It’s a cool (if not unsteady) voice that sounds like a sleepy, Midwestern version of Roger Waters on songs that often start with Mach playing piano one-handed only to gradually build to a pounding finish. Quite a debut, and quite a buzz afterward (see really lousy photo).
Finally, there was The Mynabirds. I think I made clear in my interview and in the blog that I really like their album, but I wasn’t sure if it would translate well live. The record is a real hodge-podge of styles made popular by some very familiar indie female artists. One song (“Ways of Looking”) sounds EXACTLY like a Mazzy Star tune, complete with droopy guitar line and morning-after vocals. At other times, Laura Burhenn sounds like Jenny Lewis, other times like Chan Marshall of Cat Power, other times like Maria or Orenda, and so on. So while entertaining, I’m still not quite sure I know who Burhenn really sounds like (despite what Pitchfork says). I’m not convinced that she’s defined her own style, yet. The arrangements on the recording are very, very good, but could they pull them off on stage without horns? And how would Burhenn compare to someone like Jenny Lewis, who owns a stage from entrance to exit? Could Burhenn bring out her inner-diva, or would she just stand behind her keyboard all night.
Well, in the end, she did pull it off, though she never strayed from that tiny spot behind her keyboard stand. Playing as a five piece, the music obviously lost some of the dynamic edge heard on the CD, but what did I expect? Burhenn was in good voice, belting out the hits, and to be honest, sounding more unique and on her own than on the record. She has a different delivery on stage — it’s bluesier, looser, more relaxed and natural. It was distinctly Burhenn (even though the person next to me still compared her to Jenny Lewis). Now if we could only get her to loosen up behind the microphone.