Eef Barzelay w/The Tanukis and Pee Pee Monday, August 4th, 2008 Hi-Dive, Denver Better Than: A show with songwriters peddling hackneyed premises.
When I got to the Hi-Dive, I discovered I’d missed all but the last two songs by The Tanukis -- which was too bad, because they turned out to be an excellent band. They were a four piece band with Shana, who used to be in Pee Pee, on violin, an acoustic guitar player, an upright bass player and Era on the piano.
The first song I saw was said by Era to be a “man hating song,” and since Doo Crowder applauded, she said it was for him. For the “man hating song,” her piano sound appeared to be modified to sound something like a marimba with keys. She sang in that melodious manner you might expect, but she was also able to go angstily gritty, articulating an anger that shook her body. Their final song began with a plucked bass line accompanied by normal piano and acoustic guitar sounds that crescendoed from a languid and lush sound into an intense passage that sounded like Tinderbox-era Siouxsie & The Banshees gone western. During this song, I noticed that Era played with real force, and that she sang with artfully clipped cadences like Bryan Ferry. Which is just as well, since the music of Tanukis is as beautiful and fully formed as anything by Roxy Music, sharing a similar classical sensibility. The use of delay with the piano was a nice touch and clearly Era is comfortable as a performer because she would gesture emotively when her hands weren’t immediately occupied with playing the keyboard. These guys aren’t huge yet in Denver, but it’s probably just a matter of time.
Pee Pee, meanwhile, was back to its 8-member configuration for this show, including Ryan Ellison from Vitamins on upright bass and Mike Hall from Born in the Flood on drums. I often think of Pee Pee as a benevolent cult because of how inclusive their shows are, and because of Doo Crowder’s charisma. But this show made it apparent that it was more an inspired collective with one person conducting the proceedings. They opened with a light-hearted melody, with a song that sounded like it was about first times, including “being born in a great flash of light.” Their third song started out as some kind of free-form instrumental, and it sounded like everyone was jamming out to their own tune but with none of it clashing. Eventually it evolved into a distinct song with a definite structure. Each person had found their own groove within the bigger field of sound without conflict or domination. Like a great jazz band, Pee Pee had communicated high-minded ideas through sonic example. The rest of their set was their usual core of bluesy, jazzy, orchestral folk music with thoughtful, quirky lyrics including an improvised number, while Devon Rogers was getting Ryan’s bass set up back in order, called “Technical Difficulties Blues.” Few people, both lyrically and in a given situation, turn unfortunate circumstances into art like Doo.
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Eef Barzelay took the stage last, with three other players: one with a lap steel, one drummer and a bass player. He reminded me of a cross between Richard Belzer, Steve Albini and Elvis Costello, with all the brilliantly caustic wit and humanity you’d expect from such an unlikely merger. The music was like a muscular Camper Van Beethoven sans violin. It was rough-edged and incredibly sharply written. Barzelay deftly joked with the audience between songs like he was a master of on-stage banter the likes of which most other musicians wish they could be. Sure, his humor was more than slightly off-color, but never at the expense of the people who showed up. His lyrics skewered would-be hipsters, the less savory and completely superficial aspects of the culture of L.A. and false ideals of all kinds -- but never without an underlying compassion for the human condition. His acerbic words were reserved for our impulse to fail ourselves and not cast out to eviscerate anyone. The song that summed up Barzelay’s entire outlook was “The Ballad of Bitter Honey,” which he told us was “kind of funny and kind of sad, just like life.” Ultimately, Barzelay’s songs held up the mirror to the absurd in what we tolerate and invited us to laugh along with him and decided whether or not we wanted to do something about it if we found those unpleasant characteristics in ourselves.
Bias: Anyone who can make me laugh and think at the same time, like Eef Barzelay did, is someone to be treasured. Random Detail: Mike Hall was wearing an Achille Lauro t-shirt. By the Way: I ran into a guy from Weird Turn Prose, and I still get weirded out when people recognize me in public, and I’m sorry I missed his name. -- Tom Murphy
This is the 31 in a series of what was supposed to be thirty consecutive shows that Tom Murphy (overachiever) is planning on attending. His whole idea is to prove that there's cool stuff going on any night of the week in Denver, if you bother to make any effort whatsoever to find it. He suggested naming this series, "This Band Could Be Your Life," a fitting designation to be sure. Since there's already a similarly titled book, however, we opted to file these entries under Last Night's Show -- you know, to avoid being sued an all. (Sorry, Tom.)