(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Concert review - Red Sparowes with Caspian and Fang Island

26 April 2010 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
It was an intense night of music that called for more heat than the mild spring weather outside. The three bands on the bill fit together fairly well, with enough stylistic similarities to satisfy the crowd. There wasn't a blues chord progression to be found.

All three acts had a trio of guitar players but each used them differently.

Fang Island

While Fang Island was pretty tight, they had the loosest feel of the night. They weren't completely instrumental like the other bands, but their vocals were mostly used as another instrument in the mix: chanting or a chorale approach rather than lyrical vehicles. They hit the stage with high energy, with bassist Michael Jacober's restless legs in constant spasm.

Their model for three guitars was very fluid, with the three swapping roles even within a song. A song might have a pair playing matching rhythm parts while the third played a melody, but that could evolve into twinned harmonized guitar parts washing over a prog-rock drive. The next song might feature a bagpipe drone chord against a normal chord progression and lead. That flexibility, with fluid changing of roles, defined their sound.

Fang Island's music had a kind naive joy swaddled within the high volume noise and this mood differentiated them from the other bands last night. From new songs like Daisy to older ones like S.S. Fort Jams, it was a smoking set.

There was no warning at the start...just some prerecorded sound that would underlay the whole set, then a swell of sound building. The first song was visceral build of throbbing sound. No hard edges except the snare strikes. Soon enough, though, Caspian would bury us under layers of raw channeled emotion.

The band had an intense stage presence. The beat forced them into bobbing, thrash punk style, but the music was purely prog/post rock. Their music was very tight, with a harmonic center and lots of dynamic shifts. The guitarist roles were more defined than Fang Island, with a lot of paired rhythms supporting leads influenced by U2's Edge. On the songs with twinned leads, Caspian often built a shimmery guitar wall that felt like being in a hall of mirrors with disorienting reflections.

For all of the guitar work, Caspian is really a drum driven band. Joe Vickers controls the dynamics, setting up the building tension. Similarly, the drums provided the foundation for the maelstrom of guitar. The smooth shifts between loud stormy playing and soft accents created an emotional core, which was evocative and often deeper than lyrics would have expressed. Prog rock or post rock, during this set, the labels didn't matter at all.

Red Sparowes
Where Caspian emoted, Red Sparowes were more inwardly focused. The music still reached for some of the same peaks, but there was a subtlety in how the elements came together. They were by turns pensive, ominous, and exultant. They gave a sense of improvisational jam, but it was clear that the set was structured. The changes, even when slow to evolve, were deliberate. This gave their show a slight detachment - in some ways they were the opposite of Caspian.

Red Sparowes used their three guitars to create textures, sometimes layering simple picking parts together. Other times, they started from anarchy and constructed order. The music had a taste of the progressive, especially in the drumming, but was more influenced by Pink Floyd psychedelia. In some ways, their set was like Ozric Tentacles, with less looped keyboard and stronger intention.

During the set, they projected a series of images on a backdrop adding a multi-media feel. While this didn't detract, I'm not sure that it added much. The sonic worlds that they created were engaging enough. Swirling, hypnotic, and resonant, the audience swayed along. There was a kind of ecstasy that ebbed and flowed with the intensity of the band. When they shifted configuration, to trade guitar and bass for keys and steel guitar, that added a new dimension to the trip.

Walking out into the cool night air, ears ringing, I thought back to the Gulden Draak Belgian strong dark ale I drank earlier in the evening: a rich complex beer that led off a great night of music...

More photos on my Flickr.

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