Last night: Zero 7 at the Ogden Theatre

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Zero 7 with Phantogram
Monday, December 7, 2009
Ogden Theatre
Better than:
Listening to a DJ spin trip-hop and ambient pop -- they're kicking it live on stage!

A couple of years ago, it was unclear whether trip-hop/electro-pop heavyweights Zero 7 -- comprising producers Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker -- would survive to make another album; their long-time principal vocalist, Sia Furler, left to focus on her songwriting career. But then they found Eska Mtungazi who, along with Olivia Chaney, gave Sia a run for her money on Monday night as they tackled some of Zero 7's classic tunes as well as new material from their just-released album, Yeah Ghost. Because their repertoire covers so many genres and sub-genres of electronica, it was an eclectic show, moving from acoustic minimalism to swelling waves of orchestral sound that cradle the listener from all directions.

Opening was Phantogram, an act out of Syracuse, New York featuring guitarist Josh Carter and keyboardist Sarah Barthel. The two appeared dwarfed on the set, surrounded by the instruments and electronics that Zero 7 uses to create their sound, but they were a fabulous warm-up act, with Barthel's soulful voice balancing out Carter's wailing guitar as they ran through "Mouthful of Diamonds" and "When I'm Small." Maybe I just got there too late -- I showed up at 8:15 p.m. for an 8 o'clock show -- but their set seemed awfully short; they were off the stage by 8:30.

At around 9 p.m., a single clear note rang out from the dark stage, amplifying to fill the theater before being joined by vocals, ambient noises and crashing guitars and cymbals. They started of with "Mr. McGee," a number from Yeah Ghost featuring the vocal stylings of Mtungazi, before moving into "Pop Art Blue," which Chaney belted out like a folk singer with benevolent alien accomplishment; the juxtaposition between her simple guitar lines and melodic voice and the ambient noises being provided via sampler and keyboard was eerie and gorgeous.

They moved into "Everything Up," yet another Yeah Ghost song, before slowing things down with "Speed Dial No. 2" from the When it Falls LP. Then they went back to Yeah Ghost with "Swing," when Chaney began playing what appeared to be a standing accordion. They played "Home" off of When it Falls, a sultry and yearning number that beautifully showcased both vocalists' talents, before moving into a deep instrumental number with sonar noises, an almost tribal beat and ambient noises reminiscent of singing whales.

All of these choices seemed firmly in Zero 7's downtempo/trip-hop repertoire; this is where their electro influence could really be heard, adding an edge to their mellow sound. The bass deepened and the music slowly wound down to electronic beeps and boops, ambient noise that reminded me of the beginning of a Squarepusher mix (take your pick which). They segued back into "The Road," another new number featuring gorgeous harmonies from Mtungazi and Chaney.

Then Mtungazi tackled one of Zero 7's biggest hits, "Destiny" off their inaugural LP, Simple Things. Sophie Barker is the vocalist on the original, and Mtungazi was just as good; the group added some funk and a jazz feel to what's essentially a dreamy love ballad, giving it an edge that the album version doesn't have. They moved into "You're My Flame" from The Garden before moving into another electro-heavy instrumental set that reminded me of a video game, complete with screeching and wailing laser noises and a xylophone. Distorted guitar lines, clapping noises and a wah-wah bassline filled the theater before the group seamlessly dropped into Yeah Ghost's "Medicine Man," a jazz-infused perfect end to what was a pretty awesome set.

They left the stage at 10:35, but of course came back out for an encore, when Chaney played "In the Waiting Line," another fan favorite off Simple Things. It was an excellent rendition; Chaney sang it in her folksy Irish lilt, playing her acoustic guitar while accompanied on the cello (with both plucking and bow-work). The minimalism highlighted the gorgeous melody and Chaney's voice; the rest of the group then joined them on stage. They moved into "The Pageant of the Bizarre" off The Garden, which culminated in a capella harmonizing at the end. An instrumental meld of electro and downtempo finished off the set, perfectly balancing the two main genres that Zero 7 plays and wrapping things up neatly.

Personal Bias:
Simple Things is one of my all-time favorite albums -- and I didn't even mind that they only played two songs from that LP at the show.
Random Detail: The lights were almost a band member in and of themselves; the stage went dark in between most numbers while the musicians shuffled from instrument to instrument, lending an air of near-mystery to the proceedings.
By the Way: Zero 7 takes their ever-changing lineup in stride: "Here's some more new old stuff," announced one of the producers after "Destiny" had wowed the crowd.

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