In my years as an Anglophile, rock tourism felt almost like a race against the clock, as I tried to milk as many gigs out of bands who came to the United States, at best, every three to four years, if they returned at all. Not that I maintained anywhere as aggressive a schedule as I do now, but I definitely clocked some miles tracking the Brits (and Scots). Given that track record, it seemed almost effortless to hop in a car, cruise down the Central Valley, and catch British Sea Power in as random a locale as I can remember.
British Sea Power, The Cellar Door, February 29, 2008: If Paul hadn't agreed to come with me, I would've likely hit British Sea Power's three gigs on the Los Angeles-San Diego circuit. But that would've been easy and far more predictable than a $5 show in California's farm country.
At first, that unpredictability looked pretty promising, as we spied the setup: a 200-capacity bar with a raised middle dance floor. The stage comprised a foot-high section that hosted the drummer, the multi-instrumentalist, and lots of amps, while the singers, the lead guitarist, and the violinist would occupy the main floor--exactly where the audience would stand as well. In fact, the line of demarcation between the band and the audience appeared to be a flimsy monitor cord. You can't get much closer than that. The perimeter of the room, meanwhile, was peopled by patrons sipping at their wine, drinking their beers, and watching the big-screen TVs. Odds are they were not here for the show.
And as the hours unfolded and the supposed set time passed by, we started to worry. By 10:30, a full hour after the printed start time, they were still soundchecking and adjusting the monitors, and I mentally made plans to find a hotel/motel somewhere along CA-99, as I was sure we'd never get out in time to make the drive back to San Francisco in a coherent state. My prayers were answered, however, by one of the promoters, who thanked us for our patience and announced that British Sea Power would go on first.
So it was around 11:15 that the band took the stage. I've purposely kept myself out of the loop about British Sea Power's current touring setup, so I'm not sure how anarchic their live show remains, but I was struck by how mannered they appeared: no shrubbery, no taxidermy, not even those adorable cricket uniforms they used to wear, though I suspect it had to do with the not-quite-rock-club setting.
But whatever misgivings I had about the room mostly vanished as soon as the music started (following an 11th-hour mix-up when it appeared Yan's mic wasn't working) and they tore into a mix of tracks from the new album, Do You Like Rock Music?, and the first release, The Decline of British Sea Power. Oddly, Open Season merited only one track, despite an audience member's request for "Oh Larsen B" (one of my favorites as well). The new songs sounded great, the band poured their energy into the show, and the crowd ate it up.
Let me make this clear: I love British Sea Power. Very few bands, especially ones that I haven't seen for three years, incite the same mania in me. Ask me about their live shows, and you can expect to hear my voice go up a couple of octaves and my speech to speed up, as well as see my eyes take on that glazed, out-of-body expression usually associated with cultists. It would be an understatement to say that I keenly anticipated this show, odd room or no.
But as you might expect in room not entirely suited to live rock performances, the sound was not great. British Sea Power isn't exactly known for its subtleties live, but we lost a lot of details in the songs, such as the soaring harmonies of the choruses, not to mention major contributions by the viola. As we were standing at stage right, we could hear the trumpet nicely, but I don't know if it was as prominent in other parts of the room. On the other hand, the band's trademark piercing guitar chords cut through the din with typical laser-like precision, thus reminding us of what they do best. The band handled both the frenetic rockers and the atmospheric epics with ease, though I favored the barn burners in this case.
I suspect the room's layout also prevented the band members from engaging in some of their usual shenanigans, though Noble, not to be discouraged, managed to climb up on the stage's back wall and play a whole song from that position.
The audience, it must be said, deserves a ton of credit for its enthusiasm. Even the promoters threw themselves into the show, rocking out from the first row. A peek around the main floor revealed hearty sing-alongs, fists raised aloft, and awkwardly convulsive dancing. It was great to see!
The band wrapped up around 12:30, which was fine by us, as we had quite a few miles to cover to get back to San Francisco. But with such a fun show under my belt, the drive turned out to be no problem at all, especially with the band's entire catalog on shuffle. Thank you, Visalia and British Sea Power, for the delightful excursion!
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