Dreaming about an open mike night during a nap.
"Do you guys want to hear a joke?" asks Say Hi frontman Eric Elbogen maybe three songs into their set. We do, of course. "Clean or dirty?" he asks. He gets a bunch of requests for dirty, then a bunch of requests for clean. He tells us he'll do one of each.
Here's the clean one: "How come white people can't tell jokes timing." We laugh appreciatively. Here's the dirty one: "How come witches don't wear underwear? To bet a better grip on the broom."
That one gets an "ohhh" and more laughs from the crowd. "This is a song," he says, and the three-piece plays a song.
Maybe it's the open mike night tone of Elbogen's, and later David Bazan's, banter that gets the crowd feeling talkative and involved. Or maybe Bazan, formerly of Pedro the Lion, simply has an exceptionally bold and congenial fan base. Either way, the two bands, both on Seattle indie label Barsuk, engaged the crowd and the crowd engaged them like they were old friends rather than rock stars. Which is maybe closer to the truth anyway, or at least closer to how both bands would clearly prefer to be thought of.
If you took the song structures and general bag of sound tricks from the guitar-driven indie bands of the '90s like Built To Spill and combined them with the occasional bass line and hook from turn of the century pop-minded bands like The Strokes and added the bedroom vocals of Belle & Sebastian or the Postal Service, you'd get something like Say Hi. Sounds like a weird stew, but it has a nice effect: smart and danceable and soothing all at once.
Elbogen looks and acts like a trimmer, less sunken Eugene Mirman, but he's no joke. The man mostly works alone on the studio recordings for the band. He's churned out six albums since 2002, all but the most recent on his own Euphobia imprint. On stage, he sings with his eyes wide open and his gaze fixed at some point about the crowd, grooving earnestly on the solos. The bassist matches his vibe well and the drummer adds some open-mouth rock and roll thrashing in the back. The band has toured with a keyboardist in the past, but not this time.
Someone in the crowd spills his drink and Elbogen gives him a drink ticket. He seems so amazingly unassuming. "This is a song about vampires," he says. The song was written in 2006. Without missing a beat or veering from his dreamlike deadpan, he says, "It has since gone on to inspire the Twilight series." David Bazan takes questions. Some of these questions are serious inquires about the music (one dude asks about the origins of an image in a specific line of a song. It turns out to be a biblical reference.) and some of them are not (another asks what he would defend himself with in the event of a zombie attack. Bazan ultimately decides a machete might be the way to go).
The fact that Bazan takes questions is telling: This man was in a big band that could have been a lot bigger if he'd wanted it to. There's no way he didn't get courted by major labels, but he stayed on small imprints playing small shows.
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As a solo artist, touring with a backing band for the first time in five years, he often sounds like a sort of totally bashful version of a piano-driven arena act, which is strange. He plays bass, not well he says, and sings, incredibly well. He turns to the mike, squinting into the crowd and screwing up his face like he's just waking up and looking out the window at the sun.
His voice is warm and full and full of wisdom. It leads the music over rolling peaks and long valleys. It is good music, well constructed and pleasing, with interesting, incredibly personal lyrics. But it makes for an often tedious live show. He and his band are not especially engaging musicians. They're very talented, just not much in the way of showmanship.
The show takes off with three songs to go, as Bazan breaks out his two holy-shit rockers. The final song is a more complicated composition, that stars low, and the guitars overtake him and he surges back and everyone onstage is sort of grooving and the crowd is at its most attentive. The song gently falls, down to a guitar lullaby, and fades just when everyone starts to fidget.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Personal Bias: Pedro the Lion, and, to a lesser extent, Bazan's solo stuff is music I understand the appeal to but don't particularly love. Random Detail: The Say Hi bassist (anyone know who it is on this tour?) contributed this joke to the evening's festivities during a tuning break: "How do you circumcise a whale? Send four skin divers." Every band should tell jokes while they tune. By The Way: Bazan stayed in Denver for six days in the spring, and he says the hi-dive and Sputnik were his "home."