November 05, 2006

Live Review: Voxtrot w/ Beirut, A Hawk and a Hacksaw & Yellow Fever @ Emo's in Austin, TX (10/28/06)

A member of the audience half-jokingly referred to this evening’s bill as a “sandwich show,” one in which two stylistically similar touring bands were sandwiched between two stylistically dissimilar local bands. In theory, putting bands that sound nothing like each other on the same bill should guarantee a divided, impatient audience. However, when I got to Emo’s at 8 p.m. --- 90 minutes before the first band took the stage --- I stood at the end of a queue that stretched almost halfway down the block, full of people who were doubtless consumed by the hype that headliners Beirut and Voxtrot have received from the blogosphere this year.

Opening act Yellow Fever are a local trio whose music fuses the simplicity of Beat Happening with the poise of the Breeders. Although their songs were based on dirt-simple riffs, I never got the impression that such minimalism was based on a lack of skill. If a certain song only had four notes in it, it was because they were the only notes the songs needed, not because they were the only ones the band could play. The two frontwomen sang icy, pitch-perfect harmonies that recalled the Deal sisters. All three members rotated instrumental duties (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards) depending on the song. My favorite songs from their set were “I Broke Her iMac,” a self-explanatory a capella ditty, and “Psychedelic,” an extremely catchy song with hummable descending twin-guitar riffs. This band made an excellent first impression, and I can’t wait to see their next local show.

I was most interested in seeing second act A Hawk and a Hacksaw. I bought their self-titled 2004 debut on the strength of their Elephant Six connection --- head honcho Jeremy Barnes drummed for the legendary Neutral Milk Hotel --- and was impressed! Barnes stirred everything from silent-film scores to Eastern European folk to contemporary musique concrete into a thrilling sonic stew. Unfortunately, I never got around to buying their subsequent albums, or seeing their surprisingly frequent performances in Austin. Their set this evening made me kick myself for not keeping up with them.

In an amazing feat of coordination, Barnes managed to sing while playing drums and accordion at the same time. He wore a skullcap with bells around it, and taped a drum stick to it so that he could hit the cymbals by nodding his head. He also duct taped drum sticks to his knee so that he could hit the cowbell on top of his kick drum. Barnes’ fleet-fingered, expressive accordion playing proved that his appreciation of Eastern European folk has progressed from dilettantism to mastery. For most of the set, he was joined only by gorgeous and equally talented violinist Heather Trost. During the last song, they were joined by Beirut frontman Zach Condon on trumpet. I’m sure that he was returning a favor, considering that Barnes and Trost played huge roles in the making of Beirut’s debut album Gulag Orkestar.

Condon and company played next, and the contrast between them and the preceding band was clear: they’re to the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” what A Hawk and a Hacksaw is to Ravi Shankar. Whereas Barnes and Trost fully immerse themselves in the melodies, rhythms and instrumentation of Eastern European folk, Beirut harnesses them into the pop song format, paying mere lip service to authenticity. They still have a way to go before they can live up to the hype: their reliance on endlessly undulating vocals and snare-driven waltz rhythms can make their songs sound samey. Nonetheless, they’ve already got numerous assets to their credit.

Condon is a sonorous singer and a serviceable trumpeter, and his six-piece backing band played with skill and enthusiasm. It was especially fun to watch the red-haired, bespectacled guy in the band run around the stage, switching instruments every 30 seconds and hollering the words to no one in particular. Three members of the band played ukulele during one song, which prompted a few corny heckles from yours truly: “Beirut Symphony Ukestra!,” “You Shall Know the Uke and the Uke Shall Set You Free!,” etc. During the last song, Condon and two other members jumped into the audience with their instruments and microphones. This brought the audience to a fever pitch, forcing us to shake off our cool and dance with abandon.

Local quintet Voxtrot closed the evening with a predictably triumphant set. Although I hadn’t heard a single note of this band’s music before the show, I had read good things about them in almost every noteworthy music-related website. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that they’d come out with all guns blazing. If you’re headlining a nearly sold-out show to a hometown crowd, you can do nothing less! Surely enough, singer Ramesh Srivastava pranced around the stage like he owned it, leaping into the air with his guitar in tow during every instrumental break. Bassist Jason Chronis was almost as animated. Musically, his rubber-band melodies were what I paid the most attention to.

Critics’ frequent comparisons to Belle and Sebastian are pretty apt, as Voxtrot’s music takes cues from that band’s jangly guitars, sprightly rhythms and cheeky couplets (“I know that you’re in love with her/I can tell by the way you never talk to or look at her”). However, Ramesh is a much more extroverted frontman than B&S’ Stuart Murdoch, and unlike Murdoch, his lyrics focus on relationships almost to the point of tunnel vision. In a way, this might make a Voxtrot show the perfect place to take your next indie-rock date. You can pick any song in the set and say, “This one’s for you!”

The show’s proximity to Halloween only made the atmosphere even more festive: Ramesh wore a bridegroom’s suit. At the set’s halfway point, a lady walked on stage dressed as his “bride,” and poured glasses of champagne for everyone in the band. Apparently, keyboardist Jared van Fleet was celebrating his 24th birthday! Despite all of this, Voxtrot failed to galvanize the crowd the way Beirut did. Nonetheless, pockets of the audience had begun their own private dance parties by the final third of their set...and yes, I danced right along with them!

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