So, the other night, I went to the ballet
Okay, so in typical fashion, I realized five minutes before the Ballet + Music gig the other night at the Crest Theatre was set to begin that I was three miles away. I sprinted out of the room full of people where I’d been sitting quietly and raced across town and got in just as DoomBird was beginning its performance. Thank God or whatever deity was watching over me last night that I’d had that sudden realization, because I would have been pissed if I’d missed DoomBird’s performance.
A quick recap: Ballet + Music was put together by Clay Nutting and his Concerts4Charity, and it featured four musical acts, which were set up in the dark to play stage left, while dancers from Pamela Hayes’ company, directed by Zara Hayes, performed to the music on the main stage. The lineup began with DoomBird, then featured Exquisite Corpse, then there was an intermission, then Drifting Shapes, and finally, Sister Crayon. Because I’m not a dance critic, and in fact know virtually nothing about ballet, and because of my late arrival I was forced to take a seat way up at the top of the nosebleed section, where the distance between the stage and me made it possible for the music to take my mind elsewhere for large portions of the performance, I won’t comment much on the visual aspects, except to say that the dancers moved with far more verve and elan than I can muster walking from the couch to the refrigerator, or anywhere else for that matter.
As for the music, DoomBird was brilliant. They did the lovely “Mood Ring,” perhaps my favorite number by them, and a host of others. Suffice it to say that their album, which can be downloaded here, is the best thing I’ve heard this year by anyone. Anyone. Live, I think there’s still a tentative quality, especially in contrast to what followed immediately after, and more performances might build confidence and sharpen their game. But no one else in these parts is delivering this combination of Beach Boys’ Smile sophistication coupled with SoCal Randy Newman-Van Dyke Parks-Harry Nilsson style with a hint of post-Detroit (L.A.) Motown. And with a string section, too. Kris Anaya and Joe Davancens are fricking brilliant, and this isn’t the first time I’ve said that.
Next up was Exquisite Corpse, which I think were the crowd’s favorite, or they got the most spirited audience response. I don’t want to say anything bitchy, like Journey’s Steve Perry always got the crowd rooting, too, but I guess I just did. Okay, here’s the deal: Singer Bryan Valenzuela has one of those male voices some of us lesser singers might kill for. But it isn’t just the voice, it’s what you do with it. After a couple of songs that alternated between Bono-esque banshee wails and the sort of Thom Yorke mewls over abraded-sphincter minor and diminished chords a la Radiohead, the weaknesses of the band’s material became pretty apparent. Well, to me, at least. There just didn’t seem to be any real songs there. Or maybe it was just that DoomBird is such a hard act to follow.
And that’s just me bitching, because the crowd clearly ate up Valenzuela’s ululating over four tympanists situated in front of the stage, along a drummer and other musicians stage left. And the dancers, who enacted an adaptation of the Orpheus myth, seemed to move with energy and grace, when I was watching and wasn’t muttering under my breath how at that moment I’d rather be in a fleabag motel over on Seventh Street with a bottle of Thunderbird, a bag of Slim Jim’s and a flip-top hi-fi with a pile of Tom Waits records. Sorry, that’s just me; certain acts take me back to my old days at Pulse magazine, listening to piles of major-label advance CDs and cassettes, many of them by derivative acts who got signed because they were friends in college with whoever it was who’d landed the cush A&R job, or because they sounded a lot like an act that was making money for a competing label: “Ach, this Radiohead is big with the kids and radio is eating them up! Go find me a band that sounds just like them!”
Intermission: Buttered popcorn, medium Coke. Just thought you’d like to know. After that, Drifting Shapes, Ruben Reveles’ trip-hop project. Mostly I dug Reveles’ minimalist grooves and prerecorded narrative snippets, along with the movement Hayes had worked out with her dancers. The vocals reminded me of the enervated rhythm and blues singing from my old pal Michael Ivey’s Basehead group back in the ’90s, which had a just-woke-up, where’s-the-mic feel, much of it done here over short, recurring motifs. To be honest, I was working on my bucket of popcorn, looking around, marveling that Concerts4Charity had sold out a gig featuring dance and four local acts.
Sister Crayon was next. I suppose one could apply the same criticism I just made of Valenzuela’s arena-rock muezzinry to Tara Lopez, but then, Lopez’s voice doesn’t sound so carbon-copy close to the voice of another very popular act. She’s clearly got a nice set of pipes, and the melodies she was singing generally were a nice thing to wrap that supple voice around. To me, her voice was so captivating that I kept looking over at her singing in the dark, rather than at the movement onstage. Which brings up a problem: Yes, you want people to focus on the dance, and you want live musicians out of the way, or in the orchestra pit. But there should be some kind of visual reference point, perhaps. Well, that’s just my opinion.
And here’s another point: A reshuffled order of acts could have improved the presentation. I would have set it like this: Open with Exquisite Corpse and the Orpheus dance, which would have pulled the audience right in, both with Valenzuela’s strong voice and Hayes’ choreographed moves. Follow that with Drifting Shapes. Then, intermission, followed by DoomBird, and then close with Sister Crayon. If there was some time-chewing technical problem between the striking of DoomBird and the setup of Sister Crayon, that’s where you have the emcee — here, Nutting — come out and talk to the audience about the event. Or maybe you bring out someone who can throw some kind of strange and funny story to the crowd.
Anyway, that old saw about how opinions are like assholes — everyone’s got one — maybe applies. Kudos to Nutting, not only for putting this together, but for selling out the Crest on a Friday night with a show of all local music. At a time when local clubs can put on great shows that should be selling out but don’t even come close — like the Red Meat, Whispering Chingaderos and Freebadge Serenaders gig I attended last night at Old Ironsides — it’s remarkable when lots of people do make the effort to come out. I think one reason might be that people will respond to shows when they are framed in the context of an event, and that if you’re promoting a show these days, you have to work extra hard to make sure people get the message to come out, as in flyers and posters everywhere, and other forms of pre-show publicity. You can’t just book three or four excellent bands and expect people to show up.
Promoting shows is hard, occasionally heartbreaking work. Which is one reason I don’t do it. —Jackson Griffith