Wednesday, June 19, 2013
The Regency Ballroom
Better than: Kickstarting Garden State II.
Actor and Sopranos star James Gandolfini died tragically of a heart attack around 4:30 p.m. PDT on Wednesday. Glasgow's other indie-pop band, Camera Obscura, left the stage after 14 songs at the Regency Ballroom nearly six hours later, 10:15 p.m. PDT. The guitar tech came out to tune an acoustic, and the audience soon chimed in with the applause necessary to earn a quick encore. (It was nothing deafening, but appropriate for the band's very casual aesthetic this evening.)
As the members of Camera Obscura came back out, guitarist Kenny McKeeve took to the mic to acknowledge the crowd. Next, he said the most unexpected thing at the end of a night that was otherwise going as you'd imagine it: Camera Obscura was about to perform the first song of its encore in honor of the deceased actor. "We dedicate this song to him, hope we don't fuck up," McKeeve said.
The later half of that quote may be misheard with McKeeve's slight Scottish accent, but the sentiment is correct. Camera Obscura is not a band to do anything with a wink. Maybe the members heard the day's news during or immediately after their afternoon soundcheck, or perhaps a tweet from the Hollywood Reporter's TV critic, Tim Goodman, tipped them off just before the night officially got underway. Either way, the members of Camera Obscura decided to deviate from their routine for an earnest moment of their own apparent fandom.
That seems the only explanation, because "James" doesn't feel like a song the band breaks out every night. It's a somber, minimalist tune about heartbreak that's not among its 10 most popular on Spotify. It'd be an odd choice to start an encore with at any time. But the evening's mood shifted accordingly -- lights on the stage down a bit, idle chit-chat from the crowd seemingly disappearing. Anyone who didn't watch The Sopranos or track Twitter earlier probably felt bizarre participating. But others were part of a genuine, oddly emotional moment. Goodman tweeted that several around him were even getting wet-eyed as he put the tribute on the radar of 10,000 people. At least for those within the Venn diagram of HBO viewers and Scottish indie-pop fans, Camera Obscura officially soundtracked our most current cultural tragedy.
Somehow, despite its uniqueness, this moment encapsulates the Camera Obscura live experience. Maybe you could call this a Manic Pixie Dream Band -- some whimsical, twee entity that can represent whatever emotions and thoughts are projected onto it. But really, the group is just quirky. It forgoes a lot of traditional concert elements to stick to a comfort zone. The setlist doesn't dictate audience peaks and valleys so much as one consistently laid-back experience. Sing-alongs are rare; movement is minimal both on stage and off it. Only auxiliary instrumentalist Tim Cronin seems to dance like no one's watching as he shifts from tambourines to cymbals to trumpet. It would be mundane, except that everyone in attendance is clearly a devoted follower -- the biggest in-song reactions of the night come from the first notes of an anticipated trumpet line ("Tears for Affairs") or organ lick ("Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken"). Those aren't exactly within the knowledge realm of a casual fan.
Still, this band didn't gain an audience by accident, and it doesn't continue to be relevant by adapting to the most recent sonic trends. Tracyanne Campbell's voice is as effortlessly elegant in person as it is on record. Her vocals don't come to the forefront through sheer force, rising above the fray through insanely high pitch or volume. Instead, the band uses subtle orchestration that gladly takes a back seat to her contribution. It's honestly easy to zone in and out of Camera Obscura's set and assume that Campbell's not even really trying, but her precision on the harmonies with something like "Break It To You Gently" or "Troublemaker" suggests otherwise.
In essence, this is the same approach that allows fans to get riled up for the subtle flair of a woodblock or triangle. And even those parts, as small as they may seem, are approached with Campbell-like unrelenting precision. This focus is a character trait the band seems to transfer onto its audience, and it makes for a remarkably simple rule of thumb for Camera Obscura shows. If you're in the know, this is a night for you. If not, prepare for a few moments of wondering what's going on.
One traditional element: As much Camera Obscura performs in its own way, the band did craft a setlist that heavily skewed to its newest album, Desire Lines. More than half the show (eight songs) came from the June release, with the rest mostly coming from My Maudlin Career and Let's Get Out of This Country. Former vocalist John Henderson left the band before those two albums, and Camera Obscura only dipped into material that included him once: "Teenager," from its debut album.
Do It Again
Let's Get Out of This Country
New Year's Resolution
Break It To You Gently
Tears For Affairs
This Is Love (Feels Alright)
Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken
I Missed Your Party
Come Back Margaret
Razzle Dazzle Rose