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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Last Night: Sleepy Sun at Great American Music Hall

Posted By on Sat, Jun 20, 2009 at 11:42 AM

Sleepy Sun
Friday, June 19, 2009
Great American Music Hall
Better than:
Black Mountain + Brightblack Morning Light + Black Sabbath

The members of Sleepy Sun had barely taken the stage last night, and the dudes behind me were already stoked. "Oh my God," one of them started repeating to his friend. "Oh my God." The guy sounded like he was peaking, and he still had a good hour of Sleepy Sun's light show, face paint, stage smoke, and orgiastic wails to experience. But then, maybe he was just letting everyone within earshot know a little early that this performance was gonna be an all sensory event.

And really, it was the sort of concert where you felt kinda high just being there--despite the fact that the band's parents and white-haired relatives were lining Great American's balcony, when they weren't slow dancing on the floor to the lullaby ballads. When Sleepy Sun is on stage, they mellow out their their stoned soul and desert blues to what I'd call an "underwater headbanging" pace, stretching out the heavy riffs far as they'll go; quieting the stage cacophony down to a bare, aching vocal multiple times within a song; and otherwise filtering their repertoire through a haze of sludgy melodies and chilling harmonies that are also peaking all over the place.

It was a happy homecoming for the up and coming San Francisco band. Sleepy Sun is now at a place where they've traded a good home for stints on friend's couches, and a local presence for invitations to perform all over the world--thanks in no small part to having ATP Recordings as the band's label. Last night the members seemed really excited to be back for a little bit--and their parents did too, especially the dad holding a white Sleepy Sun t-shirt over the balcony as fans cheered him on.

In between songs, singers Bret Constantino and Rachel Williams thanked the crowd (and Bret's mom) for their support with the earnestness of honorees accepting awards. When the music kicked in, though, they were purposely less lucid. Williams bent over and swung her small frame around when she wasn't punching the sky. But more importantly, she unleashed these incredibly delicate coos and howling wails that resonated like lightning strikes, providing a feminine heat that was electrifying, violent, and beautiful all at once. Constantino's vocals were less dramatic but just as entrancing. He pulls off a rock 'n' roll swagger like a young Jack White, before Detroit's biggest modern export turned toward the theatrical dandy thing. Where White gets affected, Constantino's delivery remains effortless. (And the latter is also still so excited about this band that you could occasionally watch him mouth the words as Williams sang.)

The set felt heavy and swampy, as Sleepy Sun fogged up the live renditions of "New Age," "Sleepy Son," and other crowd pleasers off their recently reissued Embrace. Although many of the tunes showed how dynamic the group's songwriting gets (they're a stony, metal-leaning band one minute and a freak-folksy blues band the next) "Lord" is the ace up Sleepy's sleeve. Nowhere is that case made clearer than from a stage, when Constantino sits behind the keys and bangs out a piano ballad that's sensitive, loud, and heavy-hitting as the rest of their set.

By the time the house lights came back on, and the visuals of shooting asteroids and other geometric shapes had disappeared, Sleepy Sun had given a peak performance in a career that seems to only be moving higher as it goes along.

Critic's Notebook:

Two line reviews of the opening acts:

S.F.'s Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound  were most interesting when they added a little extra instrumentation to the psych rock thing: the flute, sitar, and theremin added cool textures to the group's "soundtracks for strange day." "Two Birds" sounded particularly great live.

Spindrift, on the other hand, tried too hard to make a gothic spaghetti western thing work. The poncho-clad frontman was an affected (and kinda funny) touch, but the music flatlined in a wash of retro-fetishism.

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Ian S. Port


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