by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Here’s a late review of last Friday’s Holland Center/1200 Club show. In fact, Lazy-i reception will be a bit spotty this week as I’ll be headed out of town for a few days. I’ll try to update when/if I can.
On the surface, the line-up for the inaugural Hear Nebraska Live program sponsored by Omaha Performing Arts at the Holland last Friday night was edgy, if not just plain risky. Kill County isn’t exactly a well-known commodity in Omaha. Saddle Creek’s Big Harp was the closest thing to a sure bet, while Digital Leather appeared to be an obvious miss-step — a synth-fueled punk band that you’d think was way too loud for the Holland’s delicate acoustics.
In fact, the program, which was filmed in its entirety by Nebraska Educational Television (NET) was supposed to emulate Austin City Limits, a PBS program whose staple is acoustic, alt-country balladeers that are more storytellers than rock stars. Rarely has ACL featured full on rock bands, probably because its reserved setting seems an ill fit for anarchy.
Needless to say, of the three bands Kill County was the best suited for the show’s relaxed environment. 1200 Club, located on the second level of the Holland, is a gorgeous sit-down space — round tables and candles on polished oak floors. You know when you walk in that it’s going to be a nice evening as a member of the crack Holland staff points you to your table where moments later one of the black-clad waiters comes and takes your drink (or food) order with a whisper. Very classy.
On Friday night, the corners of the room were filled with NET’s professional television production equipment, including a huge boom-control camera, a stationary camera and a guy walking around with a shoulder-mount camera followed behind by a cable lackey. We arrived during the second half of KC’s reserved alt-country set. Pretty stuff, crowd pleasing, well played, and exactly the kind of music that you’d expect to see on Austin City Limits, which is a nice way of saying their music isn’t anything you haven’t heard before. There is an obvious familiarity with everything they play, and people love listening to music they recognize.
Chris and Stef — i.e. Big Harp — came on stage alone for the first part of their set for a few gorgeous ballads before guest players keyboardist Dan McCarthy and drummer Dan Ocanto joined in and ratcheted up the sound. This band continues to vex me by never hovering for long over any specific genre. Their first album, White Hat, was filled with acoustic ballads while last year’s Chain Letters had a rock sound that seemed to reach for a Black Keys audience. Friday night the band was all over the map, each song carrying a different sonic reference point, a different style, with Chris Senseney’s croaking baritone and agile guitar work providing the common denominator. While rougher (and noisier) than Kill County, Big Harp’s set was still a fine fit for both the broadcast and the venue.
Then came Digital Leather, sounding exactly as I expected. If anyone involved in organizing this program was surprised at what they heard, they didn’t do their homework. In retrospect, it was probably why the band was scheduled last because the organizers knew they’d lose some of their audience in DL’s sound and fury… just like they did.
There were two surprises from DL. First was the addition of new keyboard player Ben VanHoolandt, who plays bass in Pleasure Adapter and is part of the duo known as Dirt. This was BVH’s first show with DL, joining Todd Fink, who remains on keyboards, though the speculation after the show was that BVH is being groomed as a road replacement for Fink. Only frontman Shawn Foree knows for sure. Just a year ago, Foree had turned his back on live synths; now he has two synth players.
The other surprise was hearing Digital Leather play “Modern Castles” off Warm Brother, something I never thought I’d ever hear. Needless to say, the return of keyboards opens horizons for some of Foree’s more tuneful – less punk songs. Now if they could work up a version of “Gold Hearts” I could die a happy man.
While as loud as any Digital Leather show I’ve seen, there’s no question that the band held back for either the venue or the cameras. My wife kept asking if they’d close with “Studs in Love,” the crowd-pleasing homo-anthem off Blow Machine recently returned to their live set (usually as an encore). I just shook my head. They wouldn’t dare, and of course they didn’t (though there’s always the Maha Festival…).
I think a lot of people involved in the program saw it as an experiment. The outcome was — for the most part — a success, though I’m sure they would have liked to have sold more tickets. Still, every table was filled and everyone seemed to have a good time. I can’t wait to see how it’ll translate to the boob tube. The broadcast is slated for airing on NET sometime in the fall (and may even be picked up by PBS nationally).
But the bigger question is whether Omaha Performing Arts, NET and HN will team up (along with the 1200 Club) for another show next year. Keep your fingers crossed.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.