Sonny & the Sunsets
Carletta Sue Kay
Oct. 9, 2011
Great American Music Hall
Better than: The worn-out Roy Orbison tapes in your parents' attic.
Subtract the voice of singer-songwriter Christopher Owens, and many of the songs on the latest album from San Francisco's Girls sound like they could be souvenirs from 20th Century rock 'n' roll. There are moments of Sabbath-y furor, cheerful Buddy Holly candor, swirling Pink Floydian sonic excess, and glam rock's strutting self-obsession -- all reconstructed with the innocent precision of a museum reproduction.
But these songs have as a capstone the voice of Owens, their singer and creator. His thin bleat is at once the band's weakest instrumental element and its most interesting one -- and the giveaway that Girls are not some forgotten '70s assemblage, but a leader of the utterly free yet largely backward-looking mission that is "new" rock in 2011.
At Great American Music Hall on Sunday night, Girls played the final show of their national tour in support of the new album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Like the band's new music, the show itself felt like a tug between the aged -- unassailable influences recalled onstage with high-grade musicianship -- and the new: Owens' shaky vulnerability feels distinctly of his own time.
Dressed in a rather feminine red-striped top and baggy black pants that often looked like a long skirt, Owens cut an engimatic figure at the center of the Great American's compact stage. Surrounding him was a huge touring band by modern indie rock standards: a keyboardist, guitarist, drummer, three backup singers, and Owens' original partner in Girls, bassist and producer Chet "JR" White. With fresh flower bouquets adorning mic stands and the tops of instruments, the setting seemed at times funereal, darkly celebratory. The rococo elegance of the Great American conspired with the onstage arrangements to shut out the clattering 2011 outside, lending a timelessless to the proceedings that only accentuated the historical flourishes in the music.
But during new Girls songs, like the Sabbath-indebted "Die," or the Floyd-influenced "Vomit," Owens injected enough of his own bruised persona to keep things from feeling like a rock museum. Buried in the house mix, his already-weak voice had the effect of a devious whisper, forcing us to listen more closely to his words as the band erupted around him. "Vomit," especially, with its lyrics about searching the San Francisco night for a wandering lover, gave notice that the yearning, damaged Owens that intensified early Girls hits like "Hellhole Ratrace" and "Laura" isn't going anywhere (and shouldn't).
Owens succeeds because of his penetrating honesty, his refusal to flinch in the face of lines like "That woman loved me/ I need a woman who loves me, me, me" (about Owens' mother) on "Honey Bunny." He seems to really mean it -- despite the potential corniness -- when he explains that "Nothing's gonna get any better/ If you don't have a little hope/ If you don't have a little love in your soul" on "Forgiveness." Those lines might sound trite or overly self-assured from the mouth of a more capable singer. From Owens, they seem real.
Such earnestness becomes all the more powerful when paired with the muscular classic rock of Father, Son, Holy Ghost, which is partly what makes the album a thrilling listen. Onstage last night, even the best songs from Girls' debut felt far less deliberate and designed next to the crispness of "Vomit" or the spacious delicateness "Love, Like a River." Though the highlights of each album got an equally warm reception from the sold-out crowd, there was no doubt that the focus was on the newer material.
It's a good sign for this band that its most ambitious song, "Vomit," was the highlight of its live set. The tune begins with a despairing guitar arpeggio and slowly expands into a cinematic climax, with each instrument blaring its loudest, lonely call. At the highest point, one of the backup singers hopped down to the front of the stage and belted out a harmony that far eclipsed Owens' singing. As the song crested, the tall singer put her arm around the diminutive frontman and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Behind the blond locks that hid his face for the much of the show, Owens seemed to smile.
Openers: Girls invited two other San Francisco bands, Sonny & the Sunsets and Carletta Sue Kay, to open the show. Carletta came out with a large band, including a cellist and, at one point, a sax player, issuing a kind of literate, pissed-off lounge-rock. Afterwards, the surfy vintage pop-rock of Sonny & the Sunsets seemed especially familiar and comforting. With local wizard Kelley Stoltz on drums, Sonny's band brought a foot-tapping tightness to songs like "Too Young to Burn" and "Home and Exile." Girls singer Christopher Owens watched most of both sets alone from a stool in the back of the upstairs balcony.