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

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Concert review - Ramona Falls with Deer or a Doe, Dan Craig

20 June 2012 (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)

Three good bands made the trip down from Ft. Collins worthwhile. I was especially interested in finding out how Ramona Falls layered sound would translate to a club like the Hi-Dive. It turns out the Brent Knopf's sister lives in the area and there was a strong contingent of local fans at the show. A good crowd makes a good show even better.

Local opener Dan Craig brought his new band out for their maiden voyage. They were all well rehearsed, though, as the setlist flowed smoothly and the arrangements sounded casual but tight.

They didn't burn much of their 22 minute set on patter and Craig's vocals tended towards a sleepy, introspective sound. Despite these shoegazer qualities, the band was engaged and comfortable. Although their sound centered on a psychedelic garage rock feel, the band never fell into a rut of meandering jams or sonic repetition.

The opening song had the simple psych vibe of Staus Quo's Pictures of Matchstick Men. Within a couple of songs, the sound had shifted to a folky, down tempo rock that sounded like late night radio, talking-to-the-walls music.

The playing was understated, but precise. The best moments were little unexpected gems, like the low feedback moan lurking behind a quieter song moment or the tightly twinned bass and lead guitar lines of the final song.

This Portland band is touring with Ramona Falls. Their indie rock groove had all the right elements: a solid, serious bass and drum foundation, vocals pushed out with a restrained intensity, great guitar textures, and a smattering of keyboard fill.

The chemistry between guitarist Aaron Miller and Cassie Neth showed in their vocals and staging. Miller stood sideways, facing Neth more than the audience. His jerky movements, awkward tension, and focus made him interesting to watch.

Neth, on the other hand stayed more buried in the music. Eyes shut, she seemed intent on hitting her parts perfectly. Her vocals were more assertive than her stage persona as she gave several of the songs an early Liz Phair vibe. The moments when the loosened control and danced along were the most endearing

Aside from Miller's sharp movements, the band stayed fairly static and self absorbed. The second guitarist wrapped himself around his guitar, while the bass and drums were more workmanlike: craftsmen casually building a strong rhythmic wall.

Listening to Ramona Falls recent album, Prophet (review), it's clear that the band spends a tremendous effort to create the perfect layering of subtle elements at the balance between pop and electro-prog. The sound shifts between lighter pop and heavier tones, but the sonic details are Brent Knopf's stock in trade.

Ramona Falls' transition from the studio to the stage was effective. The band members pulled double or triple duty, trading between instruments in the fairly intricate arrangements. But playing in a club forced a sacrifice of studio clarity and tonal depth. The band took that into account and seized the upside of the trade off to give the songs a heavier edge and deeper emotional investment.

I was glad that Ramona Falls preserved Prophet's sense of dynamics. The light percussive guitar on Russia backed Knopf's dreamy vocals, but the song built beyond the recorded version as drums emphasized a monster tom pounding. Ramona Falls' music has always conveyed the emotion of the lyrics better than Knopf's calm vocals and that was still true, but his physical response to the music countered any detachment. With each punch, Knopf pulled into himself then loosened to move the song forward.

The band hit most of the tracks from Prophet, opening the set with Bodies of Water. But they also played some favorite older tunes like Russia and Clover. At one point, drummer Paul Alcott announced, "This next song is arguably the best song we're going to play tonight," before the band launched into I Say Fever. With the music video projected behind the band, they evoked the same mix of sentimentality and tension. In addition to his keyboard work, Knopf strapped on a guitar to raise the necessary chaos to climax the song.

In all, the bigger arrangements favored the band's post-rock side. Songs like Sqorm blossomed into velvety darkness as the booming floor tom and heavy bass dominated the chorus. The visceral punch contrasted with Knopf's clearly enunciated vocals.

That balance between rational and emotional is the fulcrum point of Ramona Falls' recorded music. Even with a sharper edge, their set maintained that aesthetic.

More photos on my Flickr.

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