Ian Cooke made a wise choice in choosing the Curious Theatre to debut songs from Fortitude, his new full-length. The release show, which featured supporting performances from Joshua Novak and Danielle Ate the Sandwich, benefited in a big way from the setting. Cooke's set took on the feel of a classical chamber performance in the formal setting of the Curious, while the opening acts benefited just as greatly from the lofty, theatrical feel of the venue, with its vintage design, replete with a full balcony.
With deers rendered of paper-maché as set pieces and dramatic lighting schemes as ambience, Cooke and his ensemble made the theater their own, showcasing the space's potential as an ideal music venue. The feel of the show echoed a classical chamber concert, with the audience taking in the songs respectfully and calmly in their theater seats and applauding enthusiastically at the proper spots.
It didn't take long to establish the dramatic dynamic. Soon after 8 p.m., the lights dimmed and an ominous organ intro sounded from the speakers on stage. Novak, sporting a black-and-white Roy Orbison t-shirt and an acoustic guitar, came onstage and asserted, "It's all about the drama." Novak, a southpaw who followed the example of Jimi Hendrix and held his acoustic guitar upside-down, established a somber and heartfelt mood early on in his set, delivering ballads that benefited from innovative chord structures and stark lyrical imagery.
Chris Jusell, the violinist for Danielle Ate the Sandwich, joined in for a song on piano, allowing Novak to focus solely on vocals and offer memorable line like, "It's time that we grow old and do some shit." With pre-recorded rhythm tracks as a backup for certain tunes, Novak strummed emotive acoustic rhythms to support his aching, stirring tenor voice. While much of the subject matter remained rooted in familiar subjects of love and heartbreak, Novak used the singer-songwriter feel to spell out eerie lyrical stories. He tackled the subject of zombies in one of his final songs; he covered the Beyoncé song "Irreplacable."
Novak's solo appearance and his embrace of a solo, acoustic sound proved a fitting segue for the second act, Danielle Ate the Sandwich. The trio wasn't new to the Curious stage -- they'd been a highlight at the venue during the 2010 Westword Music Showcase. Still, Friday's crowd seemed more staid and solemn, an element that didn't escape the attention of Danielle Anderson. Anderson, who was backed by an acrobatic violin from Jusell and a stirring electric bass from Dennis Bigelow, didn't waste time in offering her trademark brand of irreverence and humor, launching into cracks about buttholes (pun intended) and jokes about the somewhat stiff quality of the audience.
While the band's humor took time to resonate, Anderson's stirring vocals and emotive strumming on the ukulele seemed to resonate immediately. Sticking mostly to tunes from her most recent release, Two Bedroom Apartment, Anderson and the band displayed a well-honed dynamism, a chemistry that included moments of virtuosity from Jusell and well-timed back-up vocals from Bigelow. Anderson showed off a new degree of complexity and maturity in her ukulele performance, launching into complex finger-picking patterns during new tunes like "Indiana" and "The Have Nots." During Danielle Ate the Sandwich's set, Anderson insisted that the lights be dimmed, an effect that proved a fitting precursor for Ian Cooke's set.
Two songs into Cooke's headliner's set, what seemed like haphazard set pieces on first glance became a carefully planned stage element. Cooke took the stage with a bare bulb as a light source. With lyrics that included references to shadows and becoming "darkened" as much as an unnamed "you," the effect seemed entirely appropriate.
As the rest of Cooke's ensemble appeared onstage -- guitarist O'Dougherty, drummer Sean Merell and bassist Whit Sibley -- the coordinated effects became even more impressive. The papier-maché lit up with interior lights; the stage lights dimmed and blazed according to musical cues. Those cues offered a new compositional dimension for those familiar with Cooke's earlier work. The familiar elements were there -- tunes from Fortitude offered the trademark brand of syncopated cello lines and distinctively delivered lyrics.
But the newer material also boasted a new degree of complexity and chemistry between Cooke, O'Dougherty and Jusell. Introductory stretches for songs offered counterpoint worthy of Bach, and the thunderous input of Merell's drums and Sibley's bass added a deeper effect to those musical acrobatics. Even older songs like "Vasson" sounded more energetic on the Curious Stage. The vocal input of Julie Davis and Joseph Pope III for the final song, ""Cassowary & Fruit Bat"," helped make the live performance seem more robust, as did Jusell's almost constant presence on the stage.
The musicians were only part of it. The stage itself had much to do with the impact of the evening. Seeing Cooke's classically informed brand of cello and piano work in a more formal atmosphere added to the impact of the songs, as did the silently respectful response of the audience, aided in large part by their comfortable, theater seating. That lent a novel quality to the new songs from Cooke, as well as the sets by Danielle Ate the Sandwich and Josh Novak.
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