Photo: Claudia López
Bad Weather California, Velella Velella and Hearts of Palm Friday, May 2, 2008 hi-dive Better Than: being profoundly and painfully alone on a Friday night
With apologies to the Geto Boys: Damn, it feels good to be in Denver! I know I’ve beaten this dead horse so many times that the Humane Society has me on speed dial, but with a show like Friday’s at the hi-dive, I just can’t help myself. Over the weekend, two of Denver’s finest live acts all but obviated the need for the touring act they sandwiched and – with the help of a delightfully responsive crowd – proved that this scene is truly a remarkable beast.
Bad Weather California opened the night with the kind of set that has earned the quartet a place in the pantheon of local bands. As the band began to soundcheck, d. biddle’s Duncan Barlow scurried away from the bar, saying, “Excuse me, I’ve got to go watch the greatest band in Denver.” Sure, it’s hyperbole, but at least it’s well placed. Come to think of it, he might have been quoting us.
You never quite know what you’re going to get with a Bad Weather show – dependent as it is on leader Chris Adolf’s emotional state – but it’s always interesting. However, I can’t remember a time recently when I’ve seen the foursome in better form than they were Friday night. Adolf bantered with the crowd, gesticulated wildly, and played his witty, philosophical and sad songs with heartfelt conviction and an energy bordering on mania. Meanwhile, Adam Baumgartner/Baumeister wailed and moaned on the pedal steel, bassist Joe Sampson decided to interpret most of the songs in a Jamaican dub styley and drummer Xandy Whitesel -- resplendent in his faux devil horns -- positively killed it behind the kit (as well as the Melodica and recorder).
It was one of the most powerful performances in recent memory, and it ended in classic Adolf style. As the probably-untitled manifesto/protest song closer (I’ll call it, “It Don’t Matter”) ground to a halt, Adolf shouted, “We have two CDs!” Half of the crowd cheered, while the other half – unaware that the group had such a catalog – stared in confusion. “Let me finish,” he shouted again, and held up two fingers. “We have a CD for sale, but we only have two copies.”
Next up was Seattle’s Velella Velella. In a lot of other markets, the touring band would have top billing and the closing slot, to ensure that the crowd stuck around. Here in Denver, however, the crowd is far more likely to linger for a closer like Hearts of Palm, so the out-of-town act frequently gets the middle slot. This is not to say that Velella Velella didn’t deserve to headline. The outfit’s ramshackle take on indie electro funk made for great party music and forced more than a few of the night’s revelers to bust a move and break a sweat. Impressively, the outfit switched instruments and styles frequently, but always centered around a Jamie Lidell-esque approximation of disco soul. Unfortunately, the act was just a little too loose to ever lock into a good groove. Blame the altitude, blame alcohol, blame the two other brilliant bands on the bill, but the Seattleites seemed more interested in having a good time on stage than they were in whether the crowd was having a good time. That can work for introspective indie rock, but when you’re trying to be a party band, you need to a) be tighter than a frog’s sphincter and, b) you need to make sure your audience joins the party.
Speaking of party, Hearts of Palm is always a party in itself. Numbering nine members on Friday night for the last time ever, the pensive pop proselytizers hardly need an audience to make it feel like there’s a crowd. However the group will now be shrinking from nine to eight. Friday night’s performance was bassist Jonathan Till’s last as bassist for the group. His brother, Matthew, who has been one the group’s three guitarists, will now move to the bass.
On the whole, Hearts of Palm put on the kind of show that has made it one of my live favorites. Both spiritually and physically uplifting, the nonet practically dares you NOT to smile as it rips through its meticulously crafted songs, unforgettably hummable melodies and unison sing-shouting. In particular, Dan Craig’s gorgeous lead guitar work, Justin Croft’s deft keyboarding and Jared Black’s whiplash drumming made Friday’s night show a treat.
Unfortunately, singer Nathan McGarvey’s voice was noticeably strained, which caused some of the songs’ more poignant moments to fall a little flat. The crowd, however, which must have been near capacity, bolstered McGarvey by shouting along with nearly every word. The last time I saw an audience sing this earnestly was at a Dashboard Confessional show in 2001. The fact that Hearts inspires the same kind of loyalty that Chris Carrabba did in his early days is a testament to the group’s passion, proficiency and power. Although McGarvey finally had to call the set short, I’d wager not one person left unsatisfied.
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Personal Bias: I like nice people and good music.
Random Detail: Until Chris Adolf made somewhat self-deprecating reference to this fact, it hadn’t occurred to me that every member of Bad Weather California had been singled out in this year’s Best of Denver: Adolf for Best Frontman, Sampson for Best Singer-Songwriter, Baumgartner for Best One-Man Grunge Covers Show (for a performance by his alter ego, Littles Paia) and Whitesel for Best Soundman (shared with Devon Rogers, who actually ran the hi-dive’s sound on Friday night).
By the Way: Don’t miss Bad Weather California opening for d. biddle’s CD release show on Friday, June 13 at the hi-dive.