A venue’s atmosphere contributes more to a live show’s success or failure than we sometimes realize, a fact that was apparent during the sets by Fairchildren, Vetiver and Fruit Bats at Off Broadway. To my surprise, the club’s dive bar aesthetic has now been scaled way back: the exposed electrical wiring in the balcony has been replaced by a proper ceiling, and the very long bar area in which watching people jostling and/or fighting for position (or just plain fighting) could be as entertaining as watching any band perform has been reduced to a tiny prison-cell patch of space along the side wall. The décor is still sparse – red brick walls, highway signs and street signals placed as decoration, a stuffed deer head on a back wall – and the stage small and the lighting very basic, but overall these changes made for a thoughtful upgrade, without making the club feel sterile. Coupled with a pretty large crowd – many of whom came dressed in the de rigueur wardrobe of skinny jeans, derby hats and hipster affectation – it made for a good evening of indie music.
Denver-based Fairchildren opened with a politely-received warm-up set – highlighted by a lonesome, not ironic cover of “The Gambler” – before Andy Cabic and the rest of Vetiver took the stage. Though on record Cabic’s songs feel like the type of genteel music better suited for a venue that has either pews or plush seating and gilded chandeliers, he and the band roughed up the songs and gave them a bit of rock muscle, even if a few instrumentals went on too long. Songs from latest album The Errant Charm were featured prominently early on, the band opening with a rollicking version of “Wonder Why” and later playing “It’s Beyond Me” and “Hard to Break.” “Strictly Rule” was more intense and disheveled than its Tight Knit counterpart, while a cover of the Go-Betweens’ “Streets of Your Town” was well-executed. Like some of Vetiver’s albums, it was pleasant and worth paying attention to, even if it wasn’t exactly revelatory; too bad that a very chatty section of the floor-level crowd sometimes provided their own soundtrack to the band’s set.
Dressed like a cross between an indie rock fisherman and a local who knows about all the horrible shit that goes on at Camp Crystal Lake, Eric Johnson took the stage just a few minutes after Vetiver was done, along with six other Fruit Bats, all crammed in somewhat comically tight quarters on the tiny stage. Five songs from this year’s underrated Tripper started the set, with “Tony the Tripper,” “Dolly” and “Tangie and Ray” relieved of their folk underpinnings and instead given a much bigger, electric sound courtesy of three guitars, percussion, bass and keyboards. If Tripper has been dogged by complaints about its resemblance to 1970s-inspired folk/pop, in this live setting Johnson and the band stripped its songs of even the faintest hint of that characteristic, an approach that had most of the crowd howling in approval. Johnson occasionally hammed it up on stage and at one point bounded into the pit to dance and clap along to the band, but it was a couple slow acoustic ballads – “Singing Joy to the World” and final song “The Ruminant Band” – that showcased Johnson’s skill as a lyricist. That he was also able to quiet the jabbering hipsters, if only momentarily, with this pair of sad little songs was an achievement in itself.
After that last song was over, Johnson headed back through the crowd towards the merch table, the crowd making room as he weaved his way, but no one saying much of anything to him. One concertgoer eventually slapped him on the back and simply said, “Great job, man.” And it was.
by Eric Dennis
[Photos: Eddie Tews]