|« Little Hurricane to Woo Away Winter Blues @ The Vic this Weekend||A Chat with Hospitality »|
Review Tue Feb 04 2014
It's fitting that Califone originally hails from Chicago, as I feel their murky concoction of dissonant soundscapes with a folk/blues foundation has always been an appropriate soundtrack for a city as industrial and mysterious as this one. Chicago is arguably the largest city in the nation where you can still hear the old, weird America scratching at the backdoor, and Califone lives right at that intersection of modernity and antiquity. The band stopped at Lincoln Hall last Saturday in support of 2013's Stitches. It is the first Califone album Rutili has made outside of the Windy City, instead crafting it in Los Angeles and throughout the Southwest. He's also touring with a new lineup, including multi-instrumentalist Will Hendricks, and percussionists Joe Westerlund and Rachel Blumberg.
Califone is a kind of alien Americana. There is a rustic grime that settles on the songs (reinforced by Rutili's frequent use of a slide on his acoustic, evoking the haunt of early American blues), but these tropes are strengthened and challenged by the band's use of noise, found sound, and their unconventional approaches to conventional instruments. The thrill of their show emanates from these strange sounds, as you find yourself wondering how they are actually creating the music you're hearing onstage. At one point, Rutili was scratching out chords on his acoustic, and Hendricks was focused on his bass. Out of this murk came the twinkle of a decaying piano chord played in a high octave. I focused on the dual drummers, expecting one of them to be huddled over a keyboard or a trigger, only to see four hands focused on floor toms and percussion. The band eschews pre-recorded tracks, so I knew that wasn't a possibility; I felt like I was hearing things through the speakers that in no way correlated with what I saw on stage. It's this discordance between the visual of the band and the mystery behind the sounds they generate that make Califone such a compelling live act.
After a hypnotic performance by opener William Tyler, Califone opened with "Don't Let Me Die Nervous" off of Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People (as an aside, Califone are supremely skilled at naming their songs and records). "Funeral Singers" was the second song of the set and gathered a touch more steam than its studio counterpart. By its conclusion the song harnessed a graceful, anthemic liftoff that nonetheless sounded wary of itself. It was a great entryway into a set dominated by tracks from Stitches, an album that covertly flirts with conventional songwriting and puts a greater emphasis on the melodies and lyrics of the songs, rather than the soundscapes they inhabit. Highlights of the show included a powerful reading of "Michigan Girls", off of 2003's Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, and "A Thin Skin of Bullfight Dust", as Rutili plugged in an electric to create a more raucous sound with the opening act Tyler, who guested on the final songs of the set.
Rutili struck a loose vibe throughout the show. He mentioned several times that it was a hometown gig for him, and his relaxed approach showed it. There were a few back-and-forths between band and audience through the night, but the best comment came near the end of the set, when an unseen audience member exclaimed, "wow, you guys are GOOD," as if shocked by his own epiphany. The band and crowd both laughed, but he had a point; Califone's greatness onstage seemed to be all about the balance struck between each new sonic sleight of hand and the melancholy coursing through the songs themselves. Every song and sound brought a little epiphany of its own; even as Califone's music struck your heart, their approach kept you on your toes.