Tim Fite was equal parts comedian, provocateur, performance artist, filmmaker, MC, hip-hop producer and indie-pop songwriter. At least that's what his energetic and compelling set felt last night like at different points -- and sometimes all at once. The guy seemed fearless and supremely confident with every song and everything he attempted.
Apparently the joke was there was a singer being beamed in live via satellite, or something like that, but a lot of the time, that other singer was Tim's alter-ego projected onto a screen. Fite's set recalled Tracy + The Plastics, only he was manic instead of icily surreal, but just as amusing and fascinating to watch. The songs were well-crafted and -executed and they stood on their own -- otherwise, they never would have worked. But there's no replacing a guy who's not worried in the slightest if he looks the fool on stage in front of you.
There was something about Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor performing together again that had an aura of quiet dignity and presence, even when the two joked with the crowd. Starting the set with some older material, including "Displaced," Fink, Taylor and company played the perfect song for this season before the freeze sets in with "November."
Azure Ray's power isn't in overwhelming volume of any kind, but in creating the kind of emotional catharsis that comes from transforming emotional ordeals into deeply reflective moments, as embodied in songs with layered textures underneath Taylor and Fink's exquisitely harmonized vocals.
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The middle of the set was mostly made up of material from Drawing Down the Moon, proving that the people in this project have lost none of their touch. "Signs in the Leaves" might have been a straightforward, country-flavored pop song if not for the darkly introspective lyrics and Taylor and Fink's ever-so-slightly quavering vocal delivery.
On the album, "Don't Leave My Mind" has a bit of an electronic element, but most of that was swapped out in favor of organic elements for this live set, lending the song a bit more warmth. Before playing it, Taylor asked us about our Halloween and told us how they didn't really dress up, except that Orenda had worn black lipstick.
"These White Lights Will Bend to Make Blue" got folks singing along, even more so when the set came to a close with the classic "Hold On Love." With self-deprecating humor and grace, especially when Fink's mike cut out, forcing the vocalists to share a mike during "Don't Leave My Mind," Azure Ray showed how you can be riveting without having to resort to cheap tricks.
The closest the act came to that was the joking, but that really only served to humanize the people on stage without taking away from the seriousness and power of the music. With music this serious, you have to have a few laughs.
Tim Kasher took stage and let out a half laugh/half cry sound and went into "Cold Love." Kasher really has a knack for writing songs with truly creative and varied dynamics. But not just loud and quiet, as much of indie rock learned from Mission of Burma via the Pixies and Fugazi. Rather, Kasher, as he did in his band Cursive, let the lyrical story-telling guide the changes in tone and intensity.
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"No Fireworks," with its brilliant lyrical nod to Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," was a bracing paean to a complete loss of enthusiasm for everything in the life of the narrator, and its use of soul vocals with a jazz-lounge air in the percussion was one of the best songs of the set.
Throughout the set, Kasher acted like he was either just randomly being weird or he was drunk, but either way, it freed him up to perform without any seeming bit of put-on. Yes, it was a show, but you felt like you were seeing Kasher bare his tortured psyche just a little. Not that it's tortured all the time, but it certainly was a bit tortured at the time that he wrote some of this material.
"Surprise, Surprise" was the epitome of the fractured pop that made this set so interesting. Kasher played a couple of "covers," including "You're No Fool" from his "solo" project, The Good Life, and ended the set with the deranged but oddly uplifting "Bad, Bad Dreams."
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Been a fan of Azure Ray since first seeing the band open for Bright Eyes in 2001. Random Detail: Maria Taylor plays left-handed guitar. By the Way: Drawing Down the Moon is one of the best Azure Ray releases.