Big Light/Nathan Moore | 06.03 | CA

By: Dennis Cook

Big Light/Nathan Moore/Trevor Garrod :: 06.03.09 :: Moe's Alley :: Santa Cruz, CA

Big Light – Fred Torphy :: By Josh Miller
Some shows you go to out of curiosity, some for the party, but some we attend because they nourish us in ways as essential as food, air and water. "It is written, that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God." Weighty language to be sure but the Gospel of Luke offers us a signpost that warns us that we hunger for more than things that can be seen and held. Regardless of where one falls on faith's spectrum as far as God is concerned, the appetite for something more than workaday fare, a taste of the intangible yet true and enduring, grumbles in us all. And often we find these things in good songs served well on stages.

The triple bill of Big Light, Nathan Moore and Trevor Garrod practically exploded with this sort of comforting, stirring 'soul food' at Moe's Alley, a fab, cozy clubhouse for musicians and those of us that love them. The convergence of venue, bands and bucolic near-summer weather proved satisfying in ways that somewhat defy description. Without flash or hoopla, the whole evening just felt sweet, a quiet gift from the universe delivered with inviting melodies, worldly wisdom and unabashed honesty. In many respects, none of these artists is reinventing the wheel, but they've surely cracked why the singer-songwriter genre makes the ol' circle turn, adding just the right amount of complications and fresh attitude to enliven each gig, a passing-but-lingering series of moments. At a base level, this sympathetic bill served as reminder of the meaning and purpose a well crafted tune can have, especially when piled one golden note upon another.

Alone behind his keyboard, Trevor Garrod turned his thoughts around in plain sight, a different, perhaps more vulnerable creature outside of Tea Leaf Green, where their collective muscle sometimes hides what a sensitive lad he is. "I'm a fish on a hook/ and I am getting a look at dry land," he sang in his opening set. Garrod is able to make dark subject matter palatable, even hummable, turning a mirror on himself and his audience that reflects both our inner light and our blemishes. Stripped down to minimal backing and his solo voice, he wrestled with fears and hopes sprinkled with road-born observations in material that recalled, at different points, early Billy Joel and Tom Waits, the bittersweet bite of Randy Newman and something inescapably poppy that's all his own. One reaches for words like "lilting" and "charming" to describe his voice and demeanor, but there's more violence and black ink to his work than those adjectives imply. He doesn't shy away from the piano bar elements inherent in such sets, but accents them with edgy material and clattery percussion loops full of roughly handled tambourine and other small rhythm objects. And this performance showed he's getting his between song patter into shape, too, digging out smiles and flinches with his rambling observations, able to find the humor in civil wars, both historical and personal (a pretty cover of "Fenario," inspired by War Between The States buff and TLG bandmate Reed Mathis was a high point).

Trevor Garrod
"I want to be a blues singer tonight. I just need a good name," said Nathan Moore as he took his stool center stage. A man in the middle of a lot of things – the lineup, existential conundrums too numerous to list, etc. – Moore swiftly got us echoing back his ode to hard times full of days where we wipe our ass with paper towels and survive on mac 'n' cheese, wondering what went wrong (and perhaps what went right, too). He doesn't so much invite you in as instantly make whatever space he occupies inclusive. It's a poke, though a gentle one, that wakes us to play, to share community, to create rather than just consume. Like his magic tricks, one can't easily figure out how he does it, but like kids watching rabbits emerge from top hats maybe we don't want or need to know the how of it, only that it works fabulously time and again.

Someone handed Moore a list of potential blues names after his first number, stirring a clipped laugh from him as he perused the list. The first option, Slim Biscuit Slide, was rejected on the grounds that his family's home cooking made the 'slim' part untenable. But, he quickly settled on Salty Loo, a name then hooted in various forms the rest of evening. "Nathan's cousin from Kentucky" (as he termed himself) was especially playful, though in a softer way than Moore can sometimes get, which fit the easy ebb 'n' flow of the proceedings. Selections like "Under Understand" and "How Stupid I Am" buzzed with a realist's wishful thinking, hope offered but suitably tarnished by life's ravages. Moore is a songwriting MacGyver, taking the rag and bone buffet at hand and sculpting shapes that fly and whirr with awkward, humanizing beauty.

As a hush settled on us during a new number, I found myself wishing there were a modern equivalent to '60s Greenwich Village or Paris in the 1920s, some percolating crucible for astonishing art that the world has taken notice of where Moore could plant himself on a street corner and quietly blow minds. It's usually hyperbole (and falsehood to boot) to compare most songwriters to Bob Dylan in any but the most passing ways, but Nathan Moore IS a monumental talent in every respect. Not many can hold me rapt, stir childlike laughter from my breast or squeeze honest tears from my eyes like Moore, and he does all this with shocking regularity. There's rugged, wondrous understanding of the universe in his verses that compares nicely with peak-era Bob (not to mention his Dylan-y knack for reworking his tunes). His lines drip with pithy insight couched in curved language ("If wishes were horses there'd be some in my soup" being just one of dozens I found myself jotting down). The tock-tick of time beats behind his songs and like a man watching sand flood the bottom of an hourglass, Moore paints the world in a way that makes us treasure what hours we have and those we share them with, as he surely did at Moe's Alley.

Nathan Moore
As Moore finished his last tune, Big Light took the stage to play him out on their way to their set opener, a just as good as Gillian cover of "Wrecking Ball," a Welch number they've slowly made their own, adding a swing that compares well with Lowell George-era Little Feat. In fact, this set exhibited the dialed-in, crowd pleasing instincts of good '70s British pub stuff like Slade, Rockpile and even middle period Fleetwood Mac, where the raucous cuts and the ballady bits held equal weight, equal flair, equal pleasure. They are so melodic and bold yet possessed of an inescapable affability that just makes a body sway and grin. Big Light are massive music fans that got the gumption to crawl out of the audience and get behind instruments. It's a brave move and one most of us will never gather the courage to take ourselves. And like any festival/tour veteran, they have strong opinions about what works and what doesn't, and as they take the highway – as with this "Piece Together Wings Tour" with Moore – they are putting in the stage hours to become a really fine band informed by years of sitting at the feet of The Slip, My Morning Jacket and other worthies. Each time I catch them live they are a bit better, and well more than a bit at this particular concert. Step by step, they are making their way and gathering pilgrims in their wake, as witnessed by the healthy percentage of the crowd that knew the words to much of what was played.

The growing strength of Fred Torphy's voice was evident and more out front than in the past, and drummer Bradly Bifulco is turning into one of the most varied, impactful percussionists out there. With bassist Steve Adams and guitarist Jeremy Korpas, their sound, in broad terms, was gorgeous elation born of tough times, a deep noise dappled with analog keyboard glaze and an inner light that filled the room and then shot upwards past walls and ceilings - big and illuminating, bright and full of lasting things in the face of chaos and apprehension.

Big Light & Nahtan Moore by Jared Dayley
Earlier in the night, Nathan Moore remarked about how playing by himself left him to wrestle with the orchestras he hears in his head, and in many ways Big Light is perhaps THE mini-symphony for him. Yes, there's no denying the chemistry and infectious camaraderie he shares in Surprise Me Mr. Davis but there's more conscious showmanship to that grouping. As Moore joined Big Light, announcing, "Time to gramble," a swoon enveloped the room. This is a VERY natural fit, moving with just enough lack of care to catch themselves off-guard but enough forethought to never fall apart entirely. The word "freewheelin'" sprung to mind as they barbershopped through "You Are My Sunshine," together in the here and now, anxious to generate fun for themselves and anybody in their gravitational pull.

Later, I found myself alone in the club's patio area, the rest of the late night die-hards gathered stage side, and I just danced. Didn't care who saw, didn't care how I moved, only that move I must because their music (and their presences) had animated my limbs. There's a natural resistance to letting go to some outside spirit for some of us, a worry that should we relinquish control we may never regain it. But when that spirit is as benevolent as Salty Loo and his Toodles (one of several nicknames I entertained for them) one needn't fear. Informing us that mañana was good enough for them and roaring through the war on drugs, the power of deep breathing, roasted chickens and IM penned compositions, they provided just the sort of belly stickin' grub I'd come in seeking, and the stuffed-to-capacity glow on almost every face said that they'd brought enough for everyone else, too.

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[Published on: 6/16/09]

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