Saturday, November 15, 2008

My Brightest Diamond / Clare and the Reasons - Live 2008.11.11

This week I had the pleasure of seeing a band that I knew nearly nothing about – and I am pleased to say I rather enjoyed the performance. I went at the suggestion and accompaniment of a good friend and I was not let down. It’s just a pity that there wasn’t a big crowd (maybe 50-75 people), but I suppose the venue wouldn’t fit too many more than that anyway.

Artist: My Brightest Diamond
Venue: Cicero’s
Location: University City, Missouri
Date: November 11, 2008
Opening Act: Clare and the Reasons

Setlist:
01. Golden Star
02. If I Were Queen
03. Apples
04. To Pluto’s Moon
05. Disappear
06. Dragonfly
07. From the Top of the World
08. Black and Costaud
09. Ice and the Storm
10. Inside a Boy
11. Hymne a l’Amour (Édith Piaf cover)
12. Gentlest Gentleman

Review:
The show was supposed to start at 9pm but of course started late. The opening act, Clare and the Reasons, came out all dressed in red (not in uniforms, just in entirely red outfits). I’m guessing by their accents, multilinguistic abilities, and comments about green cards that they are French-Canadian, but I have no proof of this. Their setup was Clare on guitar and vocals, a cellist, a violist, and a violinist/bassist/xylophonist. They did about a 40-minute set, including an imaginative cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and a hilarious song about their beat-up car. It was enjoyable and fit well with the style of the headliner.

After a long break, My Brightest Diamond finally hit the stage after 10pm. I noticed that the main bandleader/singer/guitarist Shara Worden was accompanied by the same trio of musicians as Clare – but now they were all dressed in fanciful stylized black and white outfits. Their general format is similar to what Clare and the Reasons presented, but My Brightest Diamond takes things a step further in experimentation and innovation.

Worden had three or four guitars at her disposal, in addition to a nice set of at least a dozen pedals and a few assorted other instruments. She also had a weird-looking mic that produced a Faint-style distorted output (but was only used for one song) and a drum machine of some nature that she used intermittently for some backing beats.

Worden has a fascinating guitar-playing style. I think all of her guitars were tuned to different nonstandard configurations; I suspect her main guitar was in open-D but the others are anybody’s guess. She alternated between fingerpicking and strumming, and although she usually kept to repeated patterns, those patterns were usually intricate and clever. The most interesting part was that the guitar she used for “Disappear” had an unsharpened pencil positioned under the strings next to the fretboard so that it suspended all the strings above the highest fret. She had it tuned just right so that she could pluck patterns on the open strings above the pickups to get harmonious notes, but for a few parts of the song, she plucked on the other side of the pencil (above the fretboard) to get a slightly different set of notes. I’m curious as to what sort of tuning she used for that guitar.

The interesting instrumentation didn’t stop with the guitars. “Apples” had Worden using a weird little wooden box with metal strips that she would pluck with her thumbs. She only used it to make one or two repeated melodies, but it generated a quite unique sound. [Edit 2014.06.09: This is known as a kalimba or thumb piano.] “To Pluto’s Moon” featured a plastic tube that, when spun around, generated different high-pitched tones. These were used again by the other musicians during one of Worden’s stories, which she told a couple of during the night. One explained the opera experience that inspired “Black and Costaud” while another summarized a book about a boy and a horse named Diamond that provided the source of “From the Top of the World”. Worden implied that the name of her band is derived from the story.

Between “To Pluto’s Moon” and “Disappear”, Worden stepped back for a minute to allow the violinist/bassist to do a little magic show. There wasn’t really an explanation, but it added the feeling that the concert was more than just a band playing songs of their latest record. The feel of the music is too much of a blend of classical and pop elements with a healthy dose of the avant-garde to feel like a normal rock show. The volume level was kept at a tolerable level, and the audience remained fairly well-focused and appreciative. The way Worden talked about her songs and chatted with her bandmates kept the mood intimate and slightly unusual.

As things drew to a close, the out-of-the-ordinariness came to a climax. During a cover of “Hymne a l’Amour” (available on the “From the Top of the World” EP), Worden sang accompanied only by her guitar while the other musicians set up a puppet show off to the side on a table that remained otherwise unused. Because the stage isn’t set very high, they asked those of us in the front rows to crouch down so the back could see.

After that, the band ran off-stage, but they barely even got into the green room before turning around and jumping right back on for what I suppose could be considered an encore. Worden picked up a ukulele while the other musicians, joined now by Clare (still in red), huddled around microphones to provide backing vocals for “Gentlest Gentleman” (available only as an iTunes bonus track to her second and latest album, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth), which they encouraged the audience to help out with.

Although My Brightest Diamond only played twelve songs and were on stage for just about an hour, it didn’t feel like a short performance (and for ten dollars, who could complain?). They kept things interesting with their assorted interludes, sideshows, and instruments, and the audience was dedicated and absorbed by the performance. Their version of what most critics call chamber pop is precise and well-thought out, but it is brought to a different level with Worden’s multifaceted, wide-ranged vocals and innovative guitar work. If she keeps making music this interesting, I suspect she will be met by larger crowds the next time she tours.

To see Worden’s eccentric haircut, her weird box used on “Apples”, and two of the same songs she performed at this show, check out her performance on Pitchfork.tv’s “Don’t Look Down”.

Score: B+
[Retrospective Score for Clare and the Reasons: B]

Much thanks to Josh Potter, who provided my introduction to the band, my ticket, and the setlist. I couldn’t have asked for more.

3 comments:

JDP said...

Pancakes,

Great review and - you're right - the shop was thoroughly enjoyable. I would only add one brief bit about her touring configuration:

MBD also tours regularly in the following formats (in addition to the "string trio format" from Tuesday night):

(1) Rock Trio = Drummer + Bassist
(2) Full cast = Rockers + Stringers

I've seen footage from the other two formats and the rock trio really seems to fall flat, because - as you noted - I think one of MBD's more interesting attributes is the tasteful use of strings. That being said, the full cast is - of course - optimal.

For the record, I must also point out that Shara informed the crowd that "tuning isn't subjective." I would have to agree.

JDP said...

Although the "shop" we went to was indeed thoroughly enjoyable, I must admit that I really had the show in mind when I was writing the previous post.

Patrick said...

Yeah, good call on that comment about tuning; I had forgotten about that.

Although I'm not very familiar with her repertoire, the string trio format seemed to work well for it. I could see how having the rock duo in addition could really rock, though.

Thanks again, Pottery Barn.