One of our good friends affectionately refers to Mango's at "The Sweatiest Venue in Houston" and does so proudly, since he makes it a point to see a show there at least once a week. Aftermath, on the other hand, is getting a bit on in years, so we find that sweating copiously and feverishly for hours on end while actually inside a venue at night isn't quite our bag.
Nevertheless, it would have taken much more than an evening full of unending perspiration to keep us away from being present for the CD release party for Hymns From Rhodesia by our favorite gothic folksters listenlisten. We've been waiting eagerly for this record's official due date for around six months now, so we were excited to celebrate the release of this outstanding album with the band's friends and family. And indeed it truly did seem like classic family get-together, as the four bands assembled for tonight's shindig - Sew What, I Am Mesmer, Peter & The Wolf and listenlisten - could easily coalesce into one big happy musical family. The show opened with the Appalachian folk of Sew What, the pensive, introspective middle child of the night, a duo that features a wispy-voiced young woman on guitar and banjo and her male counterpart on banjo, accordion, and backing vocals. There's nothing fancy going on here, but the friendly, mostly major-key arrangements call to mind like-minded female folk singers like Bosque Brown and Dawn Landes, as well as the obvious post-Carter Family touchstones propelling much of classic country-music revivalism occurring in distinct pockets of today's indie-rock milieu. The rudimentary chord progressions made the music easily accessible, especially when pared with a pleasing soprano that stopped just short of becoming a pleading yelp. The only frustration we felt regarding this performance was that all of the crowd noise sloshing about around us gave Sew What's time on stage a rather unfortunate open-mic-night feel.
Stepping into both the patriarchal and matriarchal roles for the night was the almost inimitable gypsy-jazz of I Am Mesmer. Geoffrey Muller, Jo Bird and crew put on quite the raucous, high-spirited set that was packed to the gills with extended jam sessions and mesmerizing solo work from any of the nine musicians that filled Mango's newly rearranged stage area. In our opinion, what this collection of top-notch musicians does right with its personal take on the jam-band aesthetic is that the music seems to possess this tightly wound, just-about-to-tip-over quality that keeps listeners on their toes and always begging for more. The band succeeds at creating this delicious tension that keeps the music moving, only to be relaxed ever so slightly for some great guitar and/or violin riffing. Playing for over an hour, I Am Mesmer wowed the assembled crowd with old-fashioned fiddle histrionics and pulsing hoedowns, thus creating a musical atmosphere straight out of the creepiest fucking carnival we've ever attended - as if old-school country troubadours decided to remix Danny Elfman soundtracks. And we mean that as a supremely sincere compliment.
When Peter & The Wolf hit the stage, it was immediately evident that this Brooklyn-based trio was the hyperactive, offbeat (but still loved) baby of the family. The group served up an amped-up, highly syncopated brand of hipster indie rock that meshed together the sounds of Battles, Why?, Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend that set the crowd's hips and feet a-dancing. Featuring an expressive, caterwauling singer who played a finger piano (run through two pedals and into a Fender DeVille) and a lock-down bass player, it was the drummer's frenetic pacing that gave the band its true personality. Though we initially were rather nervous because it seemed that the guys' attire was culled directly from LATFH.com, our fears were quickly allayed when the band spouted off thirty exciting minutes of tasteful, catchy, indie-pop tunes. Finally, it was time for the serious, somber oldest brother to hit the stage, and listenlisten certainly didn't disappoint. After all, it's this band's beautifully melancholic funeral dirges that brought us all out on this night. Featuring the perpetual motion machine that is Robert Ellis as the new fifth guy on lap steel and fiddle (Seriously, does he ever sleep or rest?), the four men of listenlisten put on a veritable clinic on how to pay homage to the past while recreating it for a postmodern audience for whom nothing is new.
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Sure, you can refer to these guys as anachronistic old souls who are seemingly wise beyond their collective years (and you'd be right), but we would contend that there is a deep, attractive power to what this band is doing. Despite the nearly overwhelming bleakness of tone that is the hallmark of Hymns From Rhodesia, these are lovely tunes that want to draw the listener into a warm embrace.
While never shying away from the fact that this life can be a really cold, dark, unforgiving place, there is nothing alienating about this music made by listenlisten - it's all about calling you in from the cold and paying said cold a healthy respect for what it can do to the unsuspecting traveler. During the latter half of the band's time onstage, in which romping, stomping tunes were placed alongside weepy ballads, another of our friends leaned over to us to declare that it was almost unsettling to hear the crowd sing along so lustily to songs so obviously about death, dying and hanging. We concurred with him, but replied that we felt that to be the strength of listenlisten's music - once you were aware of the ills present in this life, you are free to sing loudly and live life to its fullest. To put it another way, the old-school, front-porch-sitting family affair that was the listenlisten CD Release Show for Hymns From Rhodesia was an amazing night of life-affirming, life-giving music. Granted, if you were at this show and proceeded to get drunk on $2 PBR tallboys or.$3 cups of Frozen Black Death, then you probably felt the music encouraging you to dance and get crazy. The trick is, we'd both be right.