Smiley's was nearly empty when we arrived, save for a few scattered locals, patrons not accustomed to the flood of twentysomethings about to overtake the only watering hole in this tiny town. We stood around, ordered drinks, waited for things to get started. People trickled in. Joanna Newsom showed up, but her Lyon & Healy harp had been tossed about on the drive up and she was in no mood to talk; she went upstairs to fix it. The band Vetiver set up on the floor in a corner and started sometime around 9 p.m. Singer Andy Cabic purred and played and tapped his foot. His bandmate Devendra Banhart finger-picked his guitar, sang harmonies.
Newsom, having repaired and tuned her harp, went on next. About 50 of us had made the hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco to Smiley's, filling the joint to capacity. The place served beer in jelly jars. Newsom's strong, reedy voice seemed to pluck the strings itself, all pingy and ringy and wry. It must have caught the locals by surprise, but they warmed to it and yelled for more; today I'm told Smiley's has a copy of one of the harpist's early homemade CD-R's in its jukebox.
We were glowing when she finished, thrilled by the intimacy of it all. That's when the Brightblack Morning Light -- or Brightblack for short -- went on. Frontman Nathan Shineywater stood shirtless, wearing big silver sunglasses and his acoustic guitar, his long greasy hair and frisky mustache completing the picture of an Alabama castaway, which is what he is. So is his best friend, Rachael Hughes, who plays a Fender Rhodes bass-keyboard in the band. Drummer Noah Wilson met Shineywater in Humboldt six years ago, and they've been playing together off and on ever since.
That night at Smiley's the trio played a shimmering set. It put us to sleep, then soundtracked our flying dreams, then woke us up again an hour later, because it was time to celebrate. We bought booze from the bartender and took it to the parlor upstairs, stayed up all night chatting, improvising on a piano and a cello, eventually finding ourselves on a starlit beach splashing about, with the dim glow of the city visible across the bay, a million miles away.
Brightblack is the reason all of this happened. Shineywater and Hughes booked the bands, which were made up of their friends; booked Smiley's, their local pub; and got the word out, which wasn't hard to do, considering the lineup. It was one of those landmark events that no one could have predicted: In the year since Quiet Quiet Morning Light, Banhart and Newsom have released critically acclaimed records and gone on to achieve international success. Brightblack, on the other hand, has stayed pretty much the same, which is really just fine with Brightblack, which prefers to stick uncompromisingly to its bohemian ideals. If that means that sleeping under the stars comes before rock stardom, so be it.
"I need 16 bars of the biggest thing you got," says Jim Lamb, sound man for Café Du Nord, during Brightblack's sound check before its show last Wednesday night. Shineywater thinks about it for a second, confers with his bandmates, and the trio starts playing a buildup of sorts, with Shineywater strumming his acoustic, Hughes fingering the notes of her Rhodes, and Wilson tapping his small kit. The racket gets about as loud as a Lexus engine.
Brightblack makes the slowest, softest music I've ever heard a rock band play; the stuff makes codeine look like crank. At a show at Du Nord that Brightblack headlined last year, almost the entire room had cleared out by the time the group was halfway through its set, most people having shown up for the opener, Vetiver, and unable to make it through Brightblack's narcotic jams full of expansive songs that feel like the still air before an electrical storm. For reference, look to Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, Mazzy Star, Low, or, as the band itself does, My Bloody Valentine.
"We really got into My Bloody Valentine and Loveless," says Shineywater, settled into a plush chair in a corner of the venue alongside his bandmates. When Shineywater and his best friend speak, they do so in thick, beguiling Southern accents, and they refer to each other strictly as Nay-bob (for Nathan) and Ray-bob (for Rachael). "That record really has the same [consistent] feeling to it. That's been a big push: Pick up on an emotion and try to maintain it rather than hitting all these other sounds."
As heard on last spring's Ala.Cali.Tucky, Brightblack's resulting aesthetic is minimal but not monochromatic, slow but not staid. The songs are anchored by reverb-laden, low-end undulations compliments of Hughes' Rhodes and Shineywater's drop-tuned guitar, gently jolted by Wilson's minimalist drumming. With the sonic bed in place, Hughes and Shineywater layer in their secret weapon: a warm bath of vocal harmonies, sleepy and whispered.
"We like to find the pocket in our harmonies," says Hughes. "You know there's the pocket in anything you do. With harmonies there's definitely a pocket. There's a close relationship with two people who can sing, finding the breath that's the same, so you can pull off a good sound, a sound that's gonna carry out and reverberate."
It's sweet, syrupy stuff, but an acquired taste. And that fact at least partially explains why Brightblack hasn't followed friends like Banhart and Newsom into more widespread success. But there's more to it than that.
"One thing that's important to us is we don't play shows with people we don't know or don't have a kinship to," explains Shineywater, hinting at the beatnik ethic that, for better or worse, keeps the band well below the radar. In addition to handpicking the lineups of their shows (which, as a result, are always splendid, down-home affairs), Shineywater and Hughes rarely manage to hold down real jobs, have spent long stretches living out of their respective cars, and currently live together in a small cabin in Lagunitas. "It looks like it used to be a chicken coop," says the guitarist. "It's smaller than a one-car garage; we sleep on bunk beds."
The pair grew up in Alabama, Shineywater in Birmingham, Hughes in a small town outside Montgomery. At their initial shows together they called themselves Rainywood; the act's first gig was a benefit for the Alabama Green Party that drew 15 people. Among the small group of writers, artists, and musicians living in Birmingham, however, was a gentleman named Will Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy, aka one of the most respected and revered folkie types in the country. Oldham took a liking to Rainywood and invited the group on tour with him. He remains one of the band's mentors to this day.
"[Oldham] showed us touring doesn't need to be this laborious, taxing, hell-on-wheels scenario," says Shineywater. "It can be laid-back. Like, the second tour we did with him in the Southwest, we scheduled our shows around hot springs."
Brightblack has done three tours with Oldham, the last of which was a West Coast stint in 2002 that eventually landed the group in Lagunitas, where it's stayed ever since.
"We don't have plans to leave," says Shineywater, "but I don't like to stay anywhere for too long."
Despite the fact that Brightblack finds itself in the middle of, or at least a mere 20 miles north of, San Francisco's so-called "freak-folk" movement, its chances of following in the footsteps of peers like Banhart, Newsom, and Jolie Holland are low in light of the subtler, more challenging nature of its sound. Still, considering how nonchalant the group is about its career (says Shineywater, "If I want a career, I'll go be a dental assistant"), it has had some notable successes of late: Composer Rachel Grimes of Rachel's will be assisting with arrangements on some upcoming songs, and Brightblack was recently invited by a reunited Slint to play the vaunted All Tomorrow's Parties festival in England in February, which will be the first time that Shineywater has ever left the United States.
"Slint's taking Nay-bob out of the country," chuckles Hughes. "I think that's great."
Before that happens, however, there'll be the second annual installment of the Quiet Quiet Window Lights series, this year featuring an even more diverse lineup, including Banhart, Vetiver, psychedelic singer/ songwriter Entrance, local crooner Peggy Honnywell, and more (Bonnie "Prince" Billy was on the bill as of last week, but now his chances of showing are slim, according to Shineywater).
After Window Lights and after Brightblack returns from England, the band plans to seek out a label to help it record a new album. With Grimes involved -- and the possibility of having other name artists contribute (Brightblack has nothing if not a loyal set of talented friends) -- the follow-up to Ala.Cali.Tucky might put the group on the map. Until that time, though, Ray-bob and Nay-bob are keeping their priorities straight.
"The other day Ray-bob told me she wanted to live more primitive, like the Native Americans," Shineywater writes in an e-mail in response to a follow-up question about the band's future goals. "Each summer we sleep in tents because our cabin is so small. Now here in the winter we have to sleep inside. I think that disconnection from sleeping with her back on the Earth's dirt is making her sad. So maybe a goal would be for us to spend next year completely outside when we sleep."