The Donkeys (The Elwins)
Sneaky Dee's. Saturday, May 21, 2011.
From time to time you'll hear people (especially those with a few more years/gigs under their belts) bemoan the fact that all the good shows start ridiculously late — goodness knows I've lamented that no shortage of times. But by the same measure, when there actually are early shows, not so many people show up, so there's not much incentive for promoters to change their ways. Case in point for this No Shame-presented show — when I arrived at Sneaky Dee's (having made it through the Rapture with no visible harm) the evening's light was still streaming in through the windows, and there was only a handful of patrons to be seen.
The numbers on hand were thinned down even more by the fact that last-minute complications left openers The Elwins without drummer Travis Stokl. The band pressed ahead in trio configuration, with Feurd Moore shifting to fill in behind the kit.
Starting with "Forgetful Assistance", the set mostly contained songs that would end up on recently-released full length And I Thank You.1 Unsurprisingly, being a hand short rendered the songs a little more spare than they would usually be, but that also allowed the stately pop simplicity at the heart of tunes like "Propinquity" to shine through. Compared to the lush production job on the album, this would have been a little austere were it not for the heavy doses of sunshine that vocalist/guitarist Matthew Sweeney had woven into the songs' cores.
Besides the And I Thank You songs, there was also "Time To Kill Time" (from their 2008 EP), and they closed out with "A Little Longer".2 Given the improvised arrangements, it was no surprise that the band kept it short, tackling just a half-dozen songs — and then ending with a big group hug on stage for getting through it. A slightly unusual set for the band, but certainly memorable.
Listen to a track from this set here.
The encouraging cheers from members of The Donkeys during The Elwins set seemed to arise from the fact that were were short-handed as well — although they had all of their members on hand, border troubles kept one of their travelling party from making it into town. Once on stage, the band lead off with the entirely self-descriptive "West Coast Raga", which, like the bulk of the set, was pulled from their then-just-released Born with Stripes.
On the one hand this was a bit of a musical outlier, with guitarist Jessie Gulati playing a credible sitar that wouldn't make another appearance. But there were clues to their sound there, aligning with other faucets in the songs that followed: this was a band that seemed to take everyone who had performed at Monterey Pop and boiled them down into a thick acid rock paste cut with Americana rootsy-ness. There were some hints of peyote-ish psychedelia and an ability to let songs drift into a stoned-haze groove, although the band never let things drift into jammy uncomfortability.
Lead vocals seemed to rotate around a bit, but drummer Sam Sprague seemed to have the most impact. But with all of those various genres and voices, the band still managed to have a unified sound. The set also included a few from the previous Living on the Other Side like "Nice Train" and "Excelsior Lady", which hinted at a softer 70's Bread-ish AOR vibe. That didn't leave the set feeling too retro, and the band were bullish on the merits of their songs, saying of "Oxblood": "this is gonna be a big hit the next time we're around".
Ambitious visions given that they were playing to a pretty thin crowd, with maybe a half-people up in front of the stage, and a few more sitting on the stools along the east wall. There were some folks hanging out at the back, but it's always hard to evaluate how much they were even following the show. The forty-minute set closed with "Downtown Jenny", and there was no encore — although I'd put that down as much to the need to clear the stage for the following DJ night.
A solid performance, and there's no doubt this is a talented unit — triangulating their ambition, hooks and scruffiness they're somewhere on the retro-rock continuum between, say, The War on Drugs and Yukon Blonde. Given that there does seem to be a hankering for this kind of sound, with the right breaks these guys could indeed be playing to packed crowds in larger rooms. But if they've listened to all those albums by the bands they're channelling, they surely know that rock'n'roll is a damned fickle mistress.
Listen to a track from this set here.
1 This is, it should be mentioned, a pretty snazzy bit of work, so effortlessly refined to a warm retro-pop glow that it's easy to miss just how well-constructed the songs are. It's available on CD, as well as the band's Bandcamp and is definitely recommended.