I'm not a hard sell when it comes to concerts, but the Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble went straight to the top of my list of gotta-go shows. Chris Funk and Jenny Conlee of the Decemberists were the main draw, but throw an alleged animatronic gorilla into the mix, and you have the makings of a downright spectacle. Sign me up!
Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, Cafe du Nord, June 7, 2007: It's very rare that I actively stop liking a band; the downward spiral usually starts with venue snobbery, which leads to apathy, and with the exception of all but my most adored artists, eventual disengagement.
That never-ending stream of up-and-coming, swoon-inducing groups helps feed the need for new music, but side projects are another great resource when you're seeking that mixture of new yet simultaneously familiar. Sure, they're often indulgent and willfully obscure, but they can be a lot of fun, especially if they carry any of the spark that initially drew you to the original players.
The Decemberists are in that awkward spot with me, in that I like them and find them undeniably endearing, but odds are, my interest has peaked. Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble lets me extend that enjoyment a little longer, and the group that Chris Funk put together shared many of the traits that made the Decemberists so charming in the first place.
Of course, Chris's own talents contributed to the Decemberists' growth, and they were on full display with Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble. Over the course of the evening, he manned the hurdy-gurdy, the dobro, and the relatively banal guitar, in addition to singing and narrating the action. Elsewhere on the tiny stage, Jenny Conlee presided over the Moog, Carson Ellis kept the time on a minimal drum kit, and their friends filled out the rest of the sound with banjo, bass guitar, fiddle, and even a gas can. Presiding over the ensemble was Sebastian the Animatronic Gorilla, waving a composer's wand and fueled by Patron tequila.
Funny or fatuous? You'll have to decide for yourself, but I can say that the music didn't take a backseat to the humor. Chris didn't reveal himself to be a frustrated lyricist relegated to sideman duties, nor will you hear the likes of "Chris Walla: Duet for Moog and Hurdy-Gurdy in G-Majorish" on mainstream radio any time soon. However, the fairly traditional-sounding songs came across as lilting, melodious, though meandering treats.
Real estate agents, take note of Chris's triptych of songs to his neighbors: "Chained to the Pole," "Can't See the Moon? Cut Down the Tree," and "Give Back the Recycle Bin Now!" Julie recognized "Teardrop" before I did, and Chris himself described it as "psychedelic bluegrass"--an apt call. I don't think we got any of the other covers you'll find on the album, but then again, I wouldn't put it past the band, and I don't trust my ears enough to swear to that. The gorilla held up well, even taking to the drums for the encore after repeated breaks to rehydrate the creature.
The Decemberists are, for all intents and purposes, Colin Meloy's metaphorical baby (aside from his real baby), so it's cool to see the other band members branching out as well. If you're willing to give them a chance, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble might offer some clues as to how the band frames those distinctively detailed historical tales that marks the group's compositions. If, however, you're more interested in how to make use of a guy (?) in a gorilla suit, Flash Hawk can help you out there too.
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