The Nels Cline Singers with Yuka C. Honda, The Independent, February 3, 2011: A setlist, techs, branded T-shirts, a burnout case sitting not 15 feet away from me attempting to throw a glowstick at the stage--what is this?
I had my doubts on how the Singers would make the transition from intimate environs to a full-on rock club like the Independent. These thoughts weren't dispelled upon seeing tables on the open floor where general-admission bodies typically crowded the space. I needn't worried, however; by the time the Singers started their set, the room was comfortably full and rapt, and the standing crowd filled out the rest of the floor going back toward the bar.
The Singers opened the show in a dreamy, cryptic fashion, with a wordless passage in three movements--including an Andrew Hill piece--stretched out over 30 minutes. "Thurston County," however, answered my populist prayers, with a bopping beat and a huge hook in Nels's guitar work. If it weren't for the tables and chairs, the room would've been dancing along, I'm sure.
For the second half of the set, Yuka Honda joined in on keyboards and percussion (alas, without the fabulous accessory spotted at the Stinkbug gig), and the night's already funky bent intensified. My memory of this portion may be unfairly weighted by the fantastically forceful "Thoughts on Caetano," along with a view of Nels switching over to percussion drawn from Scott Amendola's bag of implements for a couple of segments. I never thought I'd hear an Afrobeat influence at a Singers show, but I should know better than to be surprised by anything they do. In another unusual move, Nels stepped up the microphone for amorphous bellows on "Divining," so add that to the list of his vocal excursions.
Yuka wasn't the only new addition to the Singers stable; Trevor Dunn has assumed bass duties, and together, the foursome crafted a fuller sound than I've heard from them before. Nels sometimes uses the term "spacenoise" on his website to describe his music, and I'm pretty sure I've heard these efforts for myself on more than one occasion. It might be fair to say that very expression could be applied to the show's opening selections, but it'd be hard to make such a claim on the latter segment. Even the always magnificent "Squirrel of God" seemed to bask in a deeper sound bed than usual--though you wouldn't know it from my inadequate report.
You don't have to be a psychic to predict that the Nels Cline Singers are headed to larger venues in the years to come. After seeing this show, I'm much more confident in proclaiming they'll meet the challenge of these storied rooms without abandoning the instincts or inspiration that caught listeners' attention in the first place.
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