Thursday, May 28, 2009

Show Review: I Was A King at Beachland Tavern, 5/27

If you haven't gotten enough Norwegian pop commentary from me over the last couple weeks, get ready 'cause this one here is gonna be the last post devoted to the topic for a while.

Last night, the folks from Norway's power-pop sensation, I Was A King, successfully drove over to Clevo from Chicago (no small task considering this is only the second stop on their first-ever US tour and they are making the trek without the benefit of domestic tour support travelling alongside). A man of my word (usually), I showed up at the Beachland Tavern just in time to catch the start of the opening act, Kong Sauce. I'd heard about Kong Sauce before and liked what I listened to when I briefly checked out their myspace page the other day, so my hopes were high.

They were also dashed.

I don't want to be a negative person, especially when there is a Cleveland angle involved, but I also don't want to be a NEO homer without any critical perspective, so I try to call it as I see it. Kong Sauce has a lot of potential as a band, I think, but to achieve it they gotta make some key changes. If I were them, I'd start with the singer. The guy was just awful, looking like Trey Anastasio in sunglasses (inside, natch), singing quietly while striking vague rock poses. The entire band (except for the keyboardist, who I'd make a small wager is his girlfriend, simply because of this observation) seemed slightly embarrased of him. Playing amateur psychologist, I'd venture to guess this means he's either the song-writer or owns all the gear. Otherwise, I don't know why they'd stick with him. Who they should stick with is the multi-instrumental female singer, Krissy Brannan. She played guitar, keys, and even violin (though the latter clashed with the band's overall sound in a not-great way), and her voice is really rich and interesting (in a pretty-great way).

Kong Sauce brought some pop songs that were catchy enough and a handful of grunge tunes that were far too muddled and messy as is. If I were them, I'd hone the pop tune and maybe figure out how to bring that grunge guitar in on some of the songs. I couldn't give it much more thought than that, though, since the male singer made me want to go kill time elsewhere till the next band came on. Which I did.

Eventually I came back, when my friends arrived and greeted me with the following wonderful text message: "We are here - text me what u want to drink!" Seriously, is there a better text message one could receive? Well, of course there are plenty of better options, but that's a pretty darn good one.

We met up and had a few moments to chat before act number 2, The Dreadful Yawns, went on stage. Once they were onstage, we had several more minutes as they conducted one of the longest tuning sessions I've seen a local band go through in recent memory. Had that tuning session paved the way for an awesome set, it probably wouldn't have been worth mentioning, but as it was it just led to an 0 for 2 feeling preceding I Was A King's turn up.

Without really trying, I think I've seen The Dreadful Yawns live more times than any other local band since I moved up here a couple years ago. When I moved here, they were arguably the most name-dropped band in local circles, along with Coffinberry. (For various reasons, I've still not seen Coffinberry play out.) In the last two years, the band has evolved quite a bit, though not necessarily for the better. With respect to last night, for all the time spent tweaking and tuning, they played the set with something (or someone) set to a terrible high frequency that totally killed my eardrums, despite the fact that the volume wasn't that loud. Maybe it was all the extra echo a couple of the band members requested, maybe something wasn't plugged in right, maybe the sound guy messed something up. I don't know. But the effect was punishing. And so, to be honest, was the set. As my friend said, the performance was "not worth the destruction done to my eardrums."

I concur with that sentiment entirely, though I can't pinpoint what exactly was most disappointing. Perhaps it was the absolutely boring nature of their set - it was like sitting at a wax museum and listening to a record play. The music was a bit different than previous outings, with new songs that have a bit more thump to them than usual. The poor stage show could've been due to intense concentration on these new tunes, or maybe just the band's own ambivalence about playing in front of a hometown crowd yet again. Who knows? Really, who cares. Unfortunately, the band seems to be regressing since the first time I saw them and since I first bought their CDs. As I'm playing amateur music consultant today, the best advice I could give these guys would be (1) to try harder on stage, (2) stop letting the Bruce Springsteen meets Billy Joe Armstrong two-toned hair drummer dude sing and play guitar half the time, and (3) shift the balance of the vocals duty further onto the female keyboardist, Elizabeth Kelly, whose voice is grand. Ben Gmetro is a good song-writer and a fine guitar player, but the band seems best when he's just playing guitar and providing background vocals.

I'm starting to feel guilty about all this criticism, so I'll keep the rest positive. And, really, it isn't hard to do this, since I Was A King really brought their stuff last night. The had a good sound (with none of the frequency difficulties that the Yawns had) with GREAT guitar work, especially but not only by my newest indie rock crush, Anne Lise Frøkedal.

Providing a complete counterpoint to the Dreadful Yawns, I Was A King got down on stage and, bonus, did so without appearing insincere. All four members were into their instruments and, it must be mentioned, these were some cool looking folks. Between the skinny head-bands, Lenin caps, rocker jeans, and vintage shirts, they looked exactly like one would expect a European power-pop outfit to be, well, outfitted, up to the stylishly funky retro glasses the lead singer was sporting. Anne Lise was more conservatively attired, though she made her own mark with darling little close-hipped Jagger-style dancing. I also realized just how solid her vocals were when the band played "California," a tune I didn't dig all that much on the album but loved live. They totally took things down a few sonic notches for that number and it really, really worked. In fact, a dude sitting at the table next to ours quietly uttered "wow" when the song concluded, and I found myself nodding my head in agreement.

Another great factor from their live show was that it seemed like they had greater "ownership" of their material. On the record, as I mentioned in my review last week, they often seem held captive by some pretty clear influences, to the point of occasionally seeming unoriginal. This wasn't the case live, as I often couldn't remember who the recorded version of the various songs had reminded me of so strongly in the first place.

The band finished up their set in a bit less than an hour, and by midnight I was ready to head back to my car, a welcome early (relatively) evening on a mid-week night. In all, just as I expected, I Was A King brought their A-game to the Beachland Tavern stage. This time it was the local support that was disappointing, something that has been pretty rare in my time here as a Clevelander and something I don't anticipate will happen all that often in the future. The live music scene is rich and solid in NEO, and both bands that played this particular set have many better shows in them in the future.

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