Friday, Jan. 12, 2013
Great American Music Hall
Better than: Hearing a Kate Bush song in the local florist.
King Dude, the incongruously named vessel for gloomy Seattle troubadour T.J. Cowgill, and Los Angeles-based gothic chanteuse Chelsea Wolfe began their acoustic tour of the United States Friday night with an understated but extremely emotive performance at Great American Music Hall. For the draw of these artists, there isn't a better-suited venue in San Francisco. The GAMH's ornate columns and balconies seemed like an extension of the stage design as soft light in several shades of blue and red slowly swept the room throughout the night.
Performing acoustically was not a massive departure from the recordings of either artists. Essentially, Cowgill and Wolfe craft songs that seem to gestate acoustically and then become adorned with extraneous sounds in the studio -- Wolfe adding electronic ambiance, a full drum kit and general experimentation; Cowgill using vocal effects and field recordings. Presenting their songs in such relatively unfettered form did run the risk of revealing their reliance on the studio, dense instrumentation, and, especially, vocal manipulation. Luckily, each artist demonstrated the inherent value of their songs in stripped-down form, revealing only their acoustic influences a little more clearly.
Behind Cowgill and his accompaniment (a sole percussionist creating tasteful, rumbling crescendos on a floor tom and keeping time with tambourine,) a tattered American flag hung sideways. There was no political rhetoric in Cowgill's banter or the lyrics of his music, but combined with the duo's matching black outfits, the evening's bleak tone was established.
In this purely acoustic version of King Dude, Cowgill's direct musical influences showed brightly. The drama of early Americana was evident in his midnight narratives and the grand dichotomy of good and evil gleaned from the conflict in American blues and spirituals. On recordings, Cowgill employs a gravelly vocal inflection that sometimes seems strained beyond his years, but onstage his rich, nearly guttural singing was positively tempered by the sparse arrangement. Toward the end of the set, Cowgill beckoned to the crowd, "You want a sing-along? This one is called "Lucifer is the Light of the World." For any other performer, encouraging audience participation in a song with that title would be a cheeky bit of showmanship. But Cowgill is a self-described "Luciferian." He finds Luciferianism enriching and spiritually rewarding. In the communal, song-sharing spirit of early American folk, Cowgill seemed to offer the song to any willing performers in the crowd.
Chelsea Wolfe appeared particularly ghostly. Her pale face was framed by straight, raven-black hair gently swaying above a faded red dress. She was flanked on either side by a violinist and keyboardist, and all the mic stands onstage were entwined with white roses. The contrast between Wolfe's red dress, her band's black garments, and the white roses created an especially noteworthy aesthetic pleasure. While other stage set-ups fail to impart any emotion with heavy-handed and garish props, Wolfe's few colors and subtle decorations matched her performance wonderfully.
Not surprisingly, Wolfe's set drew heavily from her recent acoustic album Unknown Rooms. Without the experimentation of some other records, this material showcases Wolfe's tender and dejected ballads. Her somber vocals landed high up in the house mix, confirming the staggering presence of her voice. With remarkable similarity to even the slightest subtleties of her recording, Wolfe demonstrated impressive vocal abilities. For certain songs, Wolfe harmonized impressively with her violinist.
When Wolfe set her guitar down, she crossed her arms and swayed through an instrumental intro with her head down. Bending her fingers, clutching the mic, covering her mouth, Wolfe seemed to barely contain herself. With her eyes closed and her face contorted, she erupted into a particularly spirited performance. But in between songs, Wolfe was soft-spoken and humble with the audience, even going so far as to thank the crowd for its patience and for not yelling over the relatively quiet show. It was indeed impressive to see so many attendees standing and gazing intently in between songs without much chatter.
Towards the end of Wolfe's set, Cowgill joined her for two songs. Droning keyboards swelled into a bleak ambiance and the pairing of Wolfe's coos with Cowgill's deep rumbling reached a cathartic pinnacle during the ballad's climax. Afterwards, Wolfe performed a single song alone at the keyboard. The chilling narrative of the song's deceased subject over staccato keys was a change of pace for the set. The following two tracks also showcased Wolfe's versatility, as she looped a series of vocal melodies live then sang lead over the bed of vocals generated moments before. This looping technique was also used to create a stunning ethereal effect on the final song. Wolfe created a chorus of high notes that plaintively emanated as Wolfe bowed and said goodnight -- the single most artificial moment of the entire set.
Cowgill and Wolfe have certainly received attention for their respective emphasis on the occult and macabre. But the transparency evident in their acoustic performances Friday night illustrated that the value of their songs extends far beyond their arguably sensational subject matter.