From the respective receptions given, most people were here for Thrill Jockey’s psyche-blues peddlars, Califone (particularly as they do not often grace this intimate a venue), but for me there was also another draw — Denison Witmer — an acolyte bandmember of Sufjan Stevens. This was the second in a short (4 date) London-only jaunt as rotating headliners to support their new LP releases — Califones Roots and Crowns and Whitmer’s Are You A Dreamer?.
…Twenty minutes of above average singer-songwriter fare
First up though was another American, this time from Seattle, and called J Tillman. Almost a visual and aural combination of Brad Pitt and Bob Dylan, although he fell rather short these (not meant as a particularly unfair comment considering their respective status’ in the fields of singer-songwriting and, er, goodlookingness). His was a simple affair. Twenty minutes of above average singer-songwriter fare enhanced by his raw but clear voice and not detrimented by simple acoustic accompaniment. It all sounded pretty similar, but the limitations of the one-man-and-his-guitar live format are difficult to overcome. High points to pick out in included “Jesse’s Not A Sleeper” and the title track from his album Minor Works.
This was Califone’s turn to play support act, but it didn’t seem like it. The bar area emptied and the floor filled as the two members of the band that had made the trip sat themselves down amongst their various equipment. This was a show to emphasize the roots side to the band over some of their move louder, abrasive moments. Various combinations of violin, acoustic guitar, bass and mini keyboard were used to deconstruct and rebuild elements of their back catalogue into new forms; “Fisherman’s Wife” became a dusty Americana singalong, “Slow Rt Hand” was swirling blues drone. Their remarkable cover of “Orchids” by Psychic TV was included, as on the new album, but for this they had kept their slow-burning beauty. The pleasures here were not in melody, as this wasn’t foremost, but instead in the eddies and whirls of sound that build around you.
…their subleties were swallowed in ambient noise
Unfortunately for Denison Witmer, many who had come to see Califone retreated to the bar to discuss, loudly, their opinions. A shame really, despite looking disconcertingly like comedian Dave Gorman, and having a nice line in onstage patter, he failed to deaden the chattering barflys. His new record has the playful instrumentation and sun-faded joys of Sufjan Steven’s output, but these were lost somewhat. There was an interesting take on Nick Drake’s “Northern Sky” and runs through “Little Flowers” and “Steven” but their subleties were swallowed in ambient noise. Check out the album, though.
Not quite an overall triumph, then, but a quiet riot.