Words by: Lindsay Colip | Images by: Douglas Heine
Blind Pilot/The Low Anthem :: 10.21.09 :: Great American Music Hall :: San Francisco, CA
Great American Music Hall is kicking ass right now. Whoever is booking the bands over there needs to get a high five. They've been consistently bringing in topnotch headliners AND supporting emerging acts this year (Wooden Birds/Great Lake Swimmers together last week, ahem!) and this night was right on point. The venue, a 100-year-old bordello, is so sexy that a librarian reciting the card catalog would make the hairs on your arm stand up. Not to discount the lush sounds of both The Low Anthem and Blind Pilot, but I am finding it hard to write anything negative about any show I see there. In sum, the acoustics are stunning and if I played in some folk outfit I'd be banging on the door to get in.
I wasn't too familiar with The Low Anthem before this show (see JamBase exclusive feature/interview here for more on The Low Anthem), but I liked a few of their Americana folk rock songs going into the set. "To Ohio" and "Charlie Darwin" have definitely been stuck in my head this year and are the songs you should dip your toes into if it's your first listen. The group consists of Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky, and Jocie Adams, all lending their voices as well as a multitude of instruments (they seem to be highly skilled at playing 45 different ones each) to fill out the sound. On their MySpace page, they proudly list their traveling instruments: "Now Traveling With: 1 WWI portable pump organ, 1 '73 Gibson J-50, 3/4 scrapmetal drum kit, 2 clarinets, 1 German upright bass, 1 alto (E flat), Horn, 1 crotales, 1 Salvation Army electric and enough harmonicas to summon a swarm of locusts." And I'm pretty sure they actually played all of these at this show. It was an impressive sight. I really enjoyed the mellower, breathier sounding songs, like "This Damn House," off of their 2007 album What The Crow Brings. The harmonies were beautifully haunting and when Adams crowed out the long notes into the belly of the bordello, he raised chills. Half of their sound provokes childhood memories, simpler times, Americana at its finest, ala Cat Stevens and Tom Petty - a touch of folk, a little blues, a lot of soul. The other half of their sound is more harsh, almost '70s rock. Vocals stretched and strained. More grunge, dirt, foot taps, and boot stomps. The contrast was welcome. The crowd loved it and spent the entire set whooping and hollering.
Speaking of the crowd, I noticed a completely different set of people at this show. I have been attending Blind Pilot shows since they first played at Mojo's on Divisadero Street in front of 30 people. The crowd ever since has been consistently loving, respectful, and enamored with founding members Israel Nebeker (guitar, lead vocals) and Ryan Dobrowski (drums). This particular audience was full of annoying chatterboxes, people yelling things like. "Take off your shirt!" and "Portland!" at every quiet moment, and girls taking FLASH photos of each other during the songs. I felt like I was at a WWE event. I'm happy the band is expanding their clientele, but this is a softer band, led by a gentle, sweet voice – a voice that deserves your ears open and mouth shut. So, wrap it up, audience! On a pleasant vocal note, it seems the normally modest Nebeker has finally gained confidence in his talent and treated us to some very beautiful vocal walkabouts, diverging from the normal melody on several songs.
| The Low Anthem :: 10.21 :: San Francisco|
I should mention that the touring live band - Nebeker, Dobrowski, Kati Claborn (banjo, back-up vocals), Luke Ydstie (backing vocals, stand-up bass), Ian Krist (vibraphone), and Dave Jorgensen (keys, trumpet) - has a very different sound from Blind Pilot's debut album, 3 Rounds and A Sound. The album, which is pure gold in my opinion, is silky and minimal. Its main focus is on Nebeker's lyrics and voice, highlighted ever so tenderly with Dobrowski's percussion. The live sound, on the contrary, is a full-bodied pinot noir. They've added a hefty batch of instruments and supporting vocals and, in my opinion, have perhaps overfilled the glass. I'm not sure why sounding big is the goal. All of us Blind Piloters LOVED the simplicity of the album, enjoyed every teeny tiny inflection in Nebeker's voice. With all the surrounding instrumental bojangle now, it's easy to get lost. Don't get me wrong. The songs are still amazing. "Oviedo," "The Story I Heard," "Go On Say It," "3 Rounds and a Sound," and "I Buried A Bone," these are bewitching songs, but they sounded a bit noisy tonight.
They opened with "White Apple" and closed with "We Are The Tide," both newer songs that aren't on the aforementioned album. In all honesty, these were probably the best songs of the evening because they truly compliment a six-piece band. If this is a glimpse into the new Blind Pilot, then I'm certainly open to hearing more. That being said, I think their magic still lies in the cozy simplicity of it all. The quieter album tracks like "Paint or Pollen," "Bitter End," and "Poor Boy" sounded beautiful tonight in the hall, with Nebeker's voice gliding over the ornate marble columns and balconies. Another highlight of the night was a cover of Gillian Welch's "Look At Miss Ohio," something they had recently heard at a festival and added to their repertoire. Nice bonus.
| Blind Pilot :: 10.21 :: San Francisco|
What I was particularly drawn to about Blind Pilot last year was their interesting approach to promoting their music. In 2008, Nebeker and Dobrowski completed a tour, from Bellingham, WA, to San Diego, CA on bicycles, literally hauling their instruments behind them on custom-made bicycle trailers. They performed in small venues and coffee shops (Mojo Bike Shop in S.F., etc), amassing followers and devotees along the way. Some fans even hopped on their own bicycles to join the duo. Why did they do this? Nebeker told me, "The biggest reason was that we didn't know if it could work and we wanted to find out. It seemed like the perfect antidote to both the dreary winter of Portland and also to the routine and established path for music and bands to take." So, there you go - a little curiosity and a lot of guts. This grassroots marketing paid off in spades and the guys went back to Portland to create their first album. They ended up securing a single of the week on iTunes as well as a song on a Starbucks compilation and a spot on Last Call With Carson Daly. It was only a matter of time before they started gaining serious momentum by playing SXSW, Sasquatch!, Lollapalooza, and Outside Lands. Then it was opening for bands like Gomez, The Decemberists, and The Counting Crows while also headlining their own shows. Not bad for one year's work.
Blind Pilot deserves all of the success they are receiving. They have nothing but open roads in front of them, and if they can maintain the balance of moving forward while keeping an eye on the rearview mirror, then I think they'll be better than okay.
Blind Pilot and The Low Anthem are on tour now; dates available here.
Continue reading for more images of Blind Pilot and The Low Anthem in San Francisco...
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