June 10, 2003
THE STRATFORD 4 + PEDRO THE LION + STARFLYER 59 + ESTER DRANG
21 May 2003: The Great American Music Hall - San Francisco
The marquee above the door of San Francisco's Great American Music Hall may have headlined Pedro the Lion, but there was a second and perhaps greater lure to the May 21 show: the Stratford 4, the moody hometown band who is enjoying favorable press and word-of-mouth across the nation. The gig served as not only the tour finale, but also a homecoming of sorts for the local quartet, who hadn't been back since embarking on its successful American tour this spring.
At first, the Stratford 4 seemed an odd fit, between the straightforward rock aesthetics of Pedro the Lion and Starflyer 59 -- two bands, coincidentally, who have toured together in the recent past and are considered in some circles to be the closest examples the indie/college rock scene has to Christian rock. The S4 isn't exactly eccentric, but its update of the British shoegazer genre, which thrived in the late '80s and early '90s, has enough of a psychedelic haze and retro feel to threaten bill cohesion.
However, the first opening act, Ester Drang, also embodies a forlorn-core sound that recalls S4's dreaminess. And, if S4 comes across like early- to mid-career Ride, Starflyer 59's live performance bears many sonic resemblances to that British band's last two, more throwback-oriented albums. The only thing binding the four bands was their embrace of melodic and emotional rock, dipping into American punk and emo, as well as British pop, from the last two decades.
Oh, and they all played passionately and masterfully. It's rare to attend a gig with more than three bands and not be bored by at least one of them. But each act on the bill at the Great American Music Hall put on a show as if they were all headliners. Fans seemed to pick over merchandise from every single artist, perhaps picking up a Pedro poster and Ester Drang's recently released CD.
And speaking of new albums, ironically, each band but Pedro the Lion had a new album to promote. The S4 has a minor CMJ hit in Love and Distortion, its sophomore effort and first release for Jetset Records. Ester Drang was showcasing its debut follow-up, Infinite Keys, the band's first for Jade Tree, and indie stalwart Starflyer 59 has just discharged the wryly titled Old for Tooth and Nail. Pedro, on the other hand, is still touring behind last year's not-so-slowcore Control, possibly the best -- and darkest -- album by the band's auteur, David Bazan.
When the Stratford 4 hit the stage, the crowd roared louder than it had for the other two acts, signaling a possible loyalty or familiarity with the Bay Area band. Ignoring its first album, XXX, completely, the S4 focused on the highlights of Love and Distortion, which has a surplus of them. It immediately recreated 1989 London with the opener, "Where the Ocean Meets the Eye", and kicked it up a few notches with the upbeat rocker, "She Married the Birds". The audience became so quiet, it was almost hard to tell whether it was hyperfocused on the band's atmospheric grandeur or being lulled to sleep.
The only thing boring about the S4 was the inter-song banter by singer Chris Streng, whose vocals sound like a cross between Spiritualized's Jason Pierce and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst. At one point, he seemed to go on and on, until guitarist Jake Hosek drowned him out with the intro to "The Simple Things Are Taking Over" (a song whose wicked bass line -- courtesy of Sheetal Singh, who plays center stage -- strongly recalls another moody British band, the Cure). Streng would fill every natural silence with his wordy revelations. Where that works for more contemplative and soundbite-friendly artists like Michael Stipe or Morrissey, it fails for Streng, and you quickly realize his half-disaffected, half-yearning croon sounds cool in spite of his blathering tendencies once the music stops.
The social anxiety isn't so surprising, though. The S4 are a band very much in love with their craft, but you get the feeling they are unlikely pop heroes. "Everyone's talkin' about rock 'n' roll, but I just want to stay at home," Streng sang during "The Simple Things Are Taking Over", and his depression continued during "12 Months", when he sings about going to bed in September, only to finally venture outside in October.
But rock 'n' roll is the only Prozac he needs, as the band glorified its influences though the nostalgic, epic "Telephone", Streng belting out lines about going out, dancing every night, and listening to bands like Belle & Sebastian, Bob Dylan and the Stones, to name a few. Ending with a squall of guitar noise that recalled dive-bombing fighter jets, the S4 came down from its euphoric highs having played a near-flawless set.
Hopefully Streng was watching when Pedro the Lion walked on stage. Dave Bazan isn't the most charismatic or enthusiastic singer-songwriter -- most of his songs are sung in the same deadpanned octave -- but he can effortlessly engage a crowd with his own banter. His shtick relies on simply asking the audience if they have any questions, and answering them as affably and jocularly as possible. Some of the results are worth listing here:
Q: What record are you most artistically proud of?
A: The next one.
Q: Who was your favorite Transformer?
A: Well, Optimus Prime was the most bitchin'?but I think I was stuck with the Go-Bots.
Q: Is Pedro the Lion a thinly veiled Christian reference?
A: The first time I abbreviated it, I nearly shit myself. Then, I stopped taking myself so seriously, so I started putting PTL on buttons.
Q: What's with the guns on the T-shirts?
A: Guns just seem to be in again.
Bazan wasn't the only witty one in the house. When he explained how Winona Ryder met him after one of his recent gigs, a crowd member asked if she had stolen his wallet. Band and audience simultaneously burst into hysterics.
This levity offset some of the gravitas in Bazan's music, which can get quite heavy -- musically and lyrically speaking. "I could never divorce you without a good reason," he lets fall out in "Options", begging the question, who else would ever say that? Some of the scorned bitterness echoed that of Elvis Costello, though Bazan endeared himself through his articulate, humane and yet still smirk-worthy delivery; he neither assails nor whines, and his ruminations on murder and relationship bust-ups can be outright hilarious. Chris Carraba of Dashboard Confessional could stand to learn something from him in the thwarting-earnestness department.
Needless to say, toward the end of its hour-long set, Pedro the Lion had the gig-goers eating out of its hands. This may be the Stratford 4's town, but it was clearly Bazan's crowd inside the Music Hall.
His pal in Starflyer 59, singer/guitarist Jason Martin, wasn't bothering himself with a whole lot of small talk or vocal clarity. The music was first and foremost on he and his bandmates' minds, as the musicians charged through their direct and visceral set, infecting with dual-guitar-and-synthesizer-led melodies and charging with highway-drive rhythms. Keyboards wailed like Moog sirens; guitars chugged through staccato-riffed verses that recall your car's ignition when it's having trouble starting. Most of the tracks hailed from Old, and oddly enough, they felt more accessible than the act's previous material.
But, despite SF59's wall of sound, it never overpowered the audience. The band didn't seem to visibly move it, either, as it displayed nothing more affectionate than polite applause and the occasional, obligatory whoop. This may have been the result of a relatively groove-free set; the rhythms never seemed to warrant more than a rock-critic head-bob or steady foot-tap.
Ester Drang may have been the revelation here. It isn't big on physical exertion; like the S4, it seems to minimally move or even look up, caught up in its own vibe. But its synth haze, mellotron accentuations, geek-love sentimentalism and Urban Outfitter-approved melodicism did not go unnoticed by the early arrivals below the stage. It's not as dreamy and seratonin-addled as, say, fellow indie rock band Elliott, nor is it as self-conscious as the S4. Rather, it seemed to hit the happy medium with every song, with genuine affectation. If its showing May 21 was any indication, Pedro the Lion's labelmate is sure to become someone's favorite band real soon.
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