When I first saw Califone, it was as an opening act for The Sea and Cake. I’d never heard Califone before, but that night they proceeded to floor me with their beautifully fractured, atmospheric take on Americana folk and blues. So when I heard they were coming back through — to Lincoln, no less — with Clem Snide, it was pretty much a no brainer as to whether or not I should go to the show.
But first things first. When I arrived at Knickerbockers, the opening band, Okkervil River, was setting up and soundchecking. What I heard piqued my curiosity, but as with my first Califone experience, I really had no clue what I was in for. Just before their set, the band confessed that they were running on very little sleep. Not only had they just returned from Amsterdam the day before, but they’d driven all day and night to make it Lincoln. Meaning that between the 4 of them, they’d only gotten 2 hours of sleep in the last 14.
You could tell by the band’s appearance that they were exhausted. The bassist/mandolin player was pretty bug-eyed, the drummer looked like he was about to keel over every time he swung at the cymbals, and the lead singer had bags under his eyes the size of quarters. But once they started playing, all signs of exhaustion disappeared as they tore through a set that soon had the entire venue humming and pulsing.
Initially, I was about to write them off as yet another one of Bright Eye’s ilk — due, in large part, to the overwrought vocals and smoldering, acoustic-based songwriting — but there was a slightly darker weight to their music that was more inline with the likes of Bonnie Prince Billie and Songs:Ohia. My assumptions, however, came crumbling to the ground once they started weaving mandolins and accordions into their set, delivering a roaring batch of songs that seemed to channel the spirits of fiery Irish jigs and Appalachian hoedowns. Once they finished playing, the exhaustion came back with a vengeance, but for that half-hour or so, Okkervil River set the stage on fire.
Once Okkervil River had cleared off their stuff, Califone began littering the stage with their gear. And by “littering,” I mean just that. With gear — including battered guitars and banjos that look like they’ve seen the far side of the Great Depression, stacks of effects pedals, bells, rattles, gongs, and a schooldesk — strewn all about like a tornado had just torn through an old pawnshop, Califone’s stage setup is indicative of their music — tattered and battered… but utterly unique.
I have this theory that the only way to experience Califone is to see them live. While their discs are solid recordings, there’s this living, breathing element to Califone’s music that just isn’t captured in the studio. Listening to their CDs, Califone’s music sounds ragged and patchwork, but you have no idea until you see them build their songs onstage.
At any moment, it seems like their entire set might fall apart. The band seems to be struggling to get their disparate array of sounds — guitar feedback, Rhodes, odd bits of percussion, plucked violins, drones, lazy vocals, and God knows what else — to do anything, much less resemble a proper song. But suddenly, as if on some unheard, barely sensed cue, everything falls into place. However, “falls” probably isn’t the right term; “collapses” or “shuffles” or “stumbles” might be more appropriate.
Listening to Califone live is like walking through some old house you once explored as a kid. Things seem familiar, but you’re not quite sure why. And yet, every single twist and turn, each door and hallway, never fails to evoke strong memories and experiences. Califone’s music twists at odd angles, like sunlight refracted through dirty and shattered windows, but nevertheless forms beautiful shapes and patterns. And the way that Califone twists and manipulates their vocals, running them through effects pedals and shortwave radios, adds a truly haunted, ghostly quality to their music.
Another thing that just doesn’t come off in Califone’s recordings is how loud and intense they can get. Much of their music is pretty laidback and atmospheric, but live they can build walls of sound so massive they threaten to crush the stage. The only thing reining in the cacophony and giving it direction are the twin percussionists. Most of the time, the drumming seems to shuffle lazily about like the rest of the music, until something hidden in the music signals a change. The drumming slowly grows quicker and more insistent, clanging away until it sounds like a locomotive is about to break through the walls. It’s an amazing experience, to feel that sound rattling around in your bones, and as a result, I just can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed by the band’s albums.
After two extraordinary opening acts, I had pretty high expectations for Clem Snide. Again, I’ll confess that I’d never heard them before, so you’ll forgive me if, based on the name, I was expecting something a little on the, shall we say, honky-tonk side of things. Needless to say, I was a little disappointed. I just didn’t get Clem Snide. The songwriting was solid, but mixed in was a self-deprecating sense of humor that I just didn’t seem to get. The closest comparison I could come up with was Havalina, though nowhere near as droll (nor as intriguing and engaging, musically).
I stuck around for a few songs, hoping that the joke would somehow become apparent, but no such luck. I was probably the only one who felt that way, as the rest of the crowd (which included a couple of fellows following the band around the country) drank it all in. However, I’m just not a fan of joke bands. Not to say that Clem Snide’s music is a joke (ironically, I’m still humming the melody from one of the songs they played), but I’m just not a fan of bands who adopt a goofy schtick as part of their act. To me, it feels like they’re trying to hide something, or just aren’t confident enough that their music will stand on it’s own.