If it's February in San Francisco, it must be Noise Pop, and this year offered a stellar crop of shows. Unfortunately, ticket confusion led me to scratch the first festival gig I'd planned to see, but no harm done. My true interest resided elsewhere: the return of British Sea Power to Bottom of the Hill!
British Sea Power, Bottom of the Hill, March 1, 2008: I went searching for any remnant of my first British Sea Power gig ever, which happened to take place at Bottom of the Hill in the autumn of 2003, but all I found was a ticket stub from their second show at the club (this is why I now keep a blog). Not that the second appearance was too shabby--in fact, I recall that one pretty well, as I had already been blown away by the band and brought along a couple of friends in hopes of converting them (done and done). That same night, Noise Pop hosted a Neko Case gig that would've otherwise lured me in, but honestly, she didn't stand a chance against the boys from Brighton.
Four years later, and the odds had grown even more hopeless for any show in conflict with this gig. I even set the DVR to record Wilco's debut on Saturday Night Live! OK, that's not exactly a resounding endorsement, but let me assure you that I wasn't about to miss this show for the world.
On the heels of the Visalia gig, this date felt a lot more formal, and I'm not even talking about the real stage or the working PA or the apparently successful soundcheck or any of those ho-hum details. Rather, there was the matter of the photo bank parked in front of us and to our left. As an incessant concert photographer, I shouldn't talk, but these were professionals carrying huge, heavy lenses, and they were camped out for the prime photo ops. In addition, the first row of the crowd included a fair number of non-accredited camera enthusiasts. Two things were clear: (1) This would be a well-chronicled concert, and (2) The audience was not here simply to kill time on a Saturday night.
As the hours passed and the fans closed in, I grew somewhat nostalgic for the supremely laid-back nature of the previous night's gig, but those feelings left me immediately upon the band's arrival onstage. Sure, the foliage and the furry friends didn't appear as they had in previous years, but you couldn't fake the band's wardrobe choices (Yan's all-white ensemble; Hamilton's seemingly hand-sewn trousers and the puppet attached to his waistband; Hamilton and Noble's complementary bird-print shirts). And perhaps to prove that they were bringing their A-game, they kicked off with the hypnotic "No Lucifer."
The biggest surprise of the night was the beloved "Oh Larsen B." Granted, it wasn't exactly a wholesale return to Open Season, but if there was a single song I wanted to hear, they nailed it. I felt a little bad for the girl in Visalia who was denied her request, but maybe she helped jog the band's memory. Now if only they would bring back "It Ended on an Oily Stage" as well!
As I mentioned in my earlier post, the rockers fared better at the Cellar Door, but at Bottom of the Hill, we could actually soak up the more ambient tracks. "The Great Skua" was nothing short of breathtaking, and I absolutely ate up the evening's rendition of "True Adventures." That's not to say, however, it was an easy listening kind of night, a point that was apparent from early on and was emphasized immediately by "Remember Me" and "Beetroot Fields" at the top of the set and reinforced by the epic "Spirit of St. Louis/Scottish Wildlife" near-closer. In between, of course, we got much of Do You Like Rock Music?, which is great too, but you can't really fault me for wanting to hear the chestnuts.
In the mischief department, Noble kept the tradition alive by climbing out on to the bar ledge to the right of the stage, ripping off the "No Stagediving" sign from the club wall, and mostly observing the festivities. I believe a couple of staff members tried to coax him down from the post, and he gestured as if he might take them up on their offer to crowd surf. But when it became apparent they had differing intentions, he instead grabbed on to one of the ceiling pipes and swung from it for a few moments before rejoining his bandmates.
Overall, the band was looser and more engaging tonight than they had been in Visalia. In addition to Noble's forays into the audience, there was talk at the beginning of the show of their Welsh guitar tech and St. David's Day, commemorated by the wearing of a leek. And speaking of the guitars, they had their way with the equipment too. At one point, Noble did this cool thing where he yelled into his guitar's pickups for a white noise effect. Also, Hamilton lost a string on his bass, but didn't make too big a fuss over it. Instead, he opted to use only the two remaining strings, while wearing the other as a guitar strap of sorts.
I don't know if it's a sign the band has mellowed or grown older or if Eamon's departure has changed their approach or even if the crowd wasn't sufficiently encouraging, but even without the antics, the group put on a fantastic show full of intensity, energy, and amazing music. With any luck, I'll be able to catch them again before the end of this massive U.S. tour; three years is simply too long to wait for a band I dig so much.
As this was Noise Pop, three openers passed through before British Sea Power came up. Usually, I enjoy at least one of the up-and-coming bands chosen by Noise Pop, but the acts didn't gel for me this time. Off Campus played fun but not particularly notable retro-sounding rock; Colourmusic indulged in a jumble of styles that didn't really work, especially on the more overwrought numbers; and 20-Minute Loop had some interesting songs, but they too lacked a distinct style. Truth is none of them stood a chance against the headliners anyway.
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