By Dennis Cook :: Images by James Martin
Akron/Family :: 10.11.07 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
Where does one begin when they've been happily shattered? What do you tell others after encountering something that splits you open and lets joy rummage around in your entrails before sewing you up with a grin? Evisceration isn't always devastation. Sometimes the things that shake us from our comfort zone wake the dancer within and leave our hands sore from clapping ecclesiastically. When the bang of genuine creation blasts off the old skin and leaves us pink and disoriented there's the drive to proselytize, and if ever there were a group worthy of shouted amens it's Akron/Family.
| Akron/Family :: San Francisco|
Please lord give me strength
To be nobody
'Cause I am not my thoughts
Thus began an evening that was more glorious, ramshackle rite than mere concert - a fierce, inordinately engaging bouillabaisse that drew flavor from classic rock, experimental jazz, church music of every continent, the slink of '60s and '70s Nigerian and Ethiopian music, tribal drumming, folk forms and more. In print it may seem too eclectic to really coalesce, but Akron/Family loves music in the archetypal sense – song and melody and dissonance and harmony. They draw no borders or accept any common limitations. They make music in a holistically cosmic, transcendental way, and those who left their genre hang-ups at the door discovered a delightful, free spirited ensemble that strived with all their might to make you love music and performance as much as they do.
This Family is built around the core trio of Seth Olinsky (vocals, guitars, percussion), Miles Seaton (vocals, bass, guitar, percussion) and Dana Janssen (drums, vocals, misc.). Original fourth member Ryan Vanderhoof left the band to pursue a life off the road earlier this year, allowing the remaining guys to expand the lineup into a seven-headed freak machine that includes all of North Carolina's Megafaun - Joe Westerlund (drums, vocals), Brad Cook (bass, guitar, vocals) and Phil Cook (keys, banjo, percussion, vocals) – and Greg Davis (guitar, electronics, vocals). Collectively, I'm pretty sure there's no type of music they couldn't play credibly, such is their determination, innate skill and empathetic group mojo. One always felt in confident hands despite the freewheeling character of some sections.
| Akron/Family :: San Francisco|
To look at them, you'd see a bunch of pretty regular looking guys but put instruments in their hands, crank the PA (they do like it LOUD!) and you'll see them sweat off some of the natural inhibitions that keep human beings from evolving. Watching them leap and cavort in SF, one felt part of some beautiful cataclysm that precedes growth. Akron/Family invited (and in a few instances, demanded) we come go with them into the great wide open. While participation isn't mandatory (yay free will!) you missed out on a crucial element in the A/F experience if you restrained your muscles from twitching in time. Whether your mind agreed or not, your body will respond instinctively to their fluctuations. More than once I found my eyes had shut and my body continued gyrating, drawn ever closer to the flame they stoked onstage. To be moved in body as well as mind is a rare feat and one Akron/Family pulled off repeatedly.
While impossible to fully sketch the journey they took us on, it's worth noting the twists and curves of the first furlong. An almost imperceptible rise occurs, where the refrain quoted above (from "Franny" off their self-titled 2005 debut) swims through a slowly unfolding series of undulating crescendos, dwindles to just human voices and then explodes into a percussion barrage where every man onstage held a bodhran, tambourine, maraca or other manner of stretched skin and wood while their massed voices offered a sea shanty for travels in the Milky Way. This moved into molten guitar froth – what one imagines the many limbed wrangling of Sonny Sharrock and Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music) might sound like – that shifted seamlessly into a math rock display that'd draw a smile from the most hard line Tortoise fan, only to left turn into a brief pastoral pop coda. This sprawling, yet ever-successful surge was followed by a piece that suggested a squanky version of Neil Young's After The Gold Rush period and then a sweaty funk-a-thon that mashed up Chic and the Butterfield Blues Band under the Akron mortar and pestle.
The power of their vocals was undeniable, a roughhewn men's choir capable of both indescribable sweetness and Beefheartian wackiness. No one seemed overly concerned at playing the fool at times if it served their purposes or seemed right in the moment – a stance prevalent in all their moves. Many of their lyrics have a simple, finely crafted philosophical bent that gained force with repetition. Hearing the band and majority of the audience softly repeat, "There's so many colors without the dirty windows," had the power of early '70s Van Morrison, where he rattled breathlessly about "the love that loves the love that loves." In fact, there's much of vintage Van's otherworldly gorgeousness to Akron/Family, who presently make records as soulfully nourishing as Astral Weeks and His Band And Street Choir, particularly the album they're currently touring, Love Is Simple (released September 18 on Young God Records).
| Akron/Family :: San Francisco|
So complex, so multifaceted are many of Love's cuts that I was skeptical about their ability to pull them off live but jumpin' Jiminy Cricket they did so with jaw dropping success in SF. Notably, the sprawling, drum-driven "Ed Is A Portal" (complete with half naked hip-hop breakdown) served as the cherry bursting with holy rollin' flavor at the end of the main set, which also included a barnstorming James Brown-esque cover of Grateful Dead staples "Lovelight" (led in shirtless abandon by Seaton) and a movingly delicate encore of "I Know You Rider" full of shivering vocals and a badass banjo solo.
Akron/Family is writing a 21st century non-denominational hymnal, free of any New Age stink or hippie laziness. What they did in San Francisco was tap into the great currents of the universe and share that energy and unfiltered beauty with us. Their constant desire to obliterate the line between audience/consumer and performer/musician shares something with the Dead, Phish and others who've introduced participatory elements into the mix. However, those bands rarely gave so freely or vigorously to those who stood before them. Akron/Family are a very special band and you cheat yourself with every minute you wait to wade into their waters.
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