When Girls took the stage at the Gothic Theatre last night, it was like seeing something out of the early '90s, the time when not having a fashion statement was a fashion statement, when the attitude of the musicians and their performance spoke volumes more than the clothes they wore. And there was little banter between songs. The set started with jangle and shimmer of "Heartbreaker."
Even though the band's music videos reveal the guys as having a kind of goofy sense of humor, the live band has a raw but directed emotional character that gives its music a quality that transcends just straight ahead power pop. Christopher Owens seemed to revisit the strong, sometimes painful, fragile emotional space he was in when he wrote the songs. Obviously he's played this music countless times, and so after a while performing the music has to be a bit of an act, but he was able to summon those feelings with every song.
The lyrics and the tenor of the music itself was melodramatic -- not the overripe variety, though. It was more the kind that expresses a heightened emotional state, the state of mind you're in if you're a sensitive person and the poignancy of the moment strikes you just right causing your heart to break all over again and you have to express yourself in some way. Obviously in crafting that moment in the song there is some distancing from the original experience, but Girls were able to recreate the poetic essence of those feelings and not make it seem contrived or morose, even when the exact wording of the lyrics bordered on and crossed over into the cliché.
What mattered most in the performance of the music throughout the set was the ability of the band to convince you that those words and the feelings expressed through sound came from a real place. Owens' demeanor was one that seemed very exposed, and yet, when he and the rest of the band performed the quiet confidence you develop as a touring musician to command such an audience. It was an interesting dichotomy to witness.
Sometimes the music was indeed the kind of power pop that sounded like Owens and JR White listened to a lot of Teenage Fanclub, Big Star and mixed in heavy doses of early Neil Young. Other times, the countrified calm of the Young dominated the foreground. But there wasn't a moment from first song of the set to the last where you didn't feel like you got to see a band that, while well-rehearsed, was emotionally open and sensitive to the contributions and dynamics of everyone on stage.
Opening the show was Portland, Oregon's Unknown Mortal Orchestra. For three guys, the act kicked up a bit of a racket with swirling fuzz tones from Jacob Portrait's bass and the constantly shifting tones Ruban Nielson elicited from his guitar from song to song. Nielson's brother Kody, meanwhile, made a straight ahead beat seem like an intense exercise in tribal rhythms, as the slight delay on his snare echoed to accent the band's fractured pop songs.
The set started off with the warped, ghostly "Little Blue House." But it was for "Nerve Damage!" that Nielson could be seen to be holding his guitar a little differently than most of his peers. With the bottom of the guitar in the crook of his arm while the upper curve was tucked just in front of his shoulder like he was holding a rifle sideways, he strummed with a force and variety that kept his playing lively.
A subtle, self-effacing and dry humor that seemed lost on a lot of the audience informed Nielson's few words, and he and the other guys gave their relatively short set a driving energy, tempered by a textured musical complexity you don't often see. During "Jello and Juggernauts" the way the band came off the end of a lyric into a quick decrescendo and minor chord progression and then back into the song was truly a poignant and beautiful set of moments.
Before "How Can U Luv Me," Nielson tried to make a joke but sort of got cut off by a well-meaning heckler who yelled, "Shut the fuck up and just play it" (some people's children). Nielson replied with a chuckle and said, "Yeah, okay." The set ended with "Boy Witch." Toward the song's denouement, everyone came together physically and sonically to raise the tone before bringing it suddenly down until the song all but sputtered out.
Girls Gothic Theatre - 3/16/12 Englewood, CO
01. Heartbreaker 02. Laura 03. My Ma 04. Substance 05. Ghost Mouth 06. Headache 07. Honey Bunny 08. Lust For Life 09. Die 10. Vomit 11. Broken Dreams Club 12. Forgiveness 13. Darling
14. Alex 15. Love Like A River
Unknown Mortal Orchestra Gothic Theatre - 3/16/12 Englewood, CO
01. Little Blu House 02. Thought Ballune 03. Nerve Damage! 04. Strangers Are Strange 05. Jello and Juggernauts 06. Ffunny Ffriends 07. How Can U Luv Me 08. Boy Witch
Personal Bias: After interviewing Ruban Nielson, I was hoping his band was good live. No worries. Random Detail: Before Girls took stage "I Speak Your Every Word" by Curve was playing over the P.A. By the Way: Ran into everyone in Sauna at the show, as well as Jessica Hughes of Cougar Pants.
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