Concert Review: Knife in the Water, The Mendoza Line & Watch the Stereo (March 28, 2002, Omaha, NE)

If you don’t learn anything from this review, learn just this one thing; always know where the concert venue is located before you set out. It’s a lesson my friends and I should know by now, but I guess we just assumed we could find it in the phone book. After all, how hard could it be to find a place called “The Junction”? Harder than you’d think, when it turns out there’s a clothing store by the same name located on the other side of town. So much for knowing my way around the ol’ hometown.

Due to our unexpected backtracking, we completely missed the opening band’s set, walking in right when The Mendoza Line took the stage. One of the good things about having never heard a band is that there are no expectations. If they suck, it’s not like you’re going to be disappointed (other than having parted with some money). If they don’t, then you’ve got yourself a pleasant little discovery and new addition to your record collection.

However, The Mendoza Line straddled the two opposites. Their set was quite loose, with more banter going on within the band than between the band and audience. In fact, the atmosphere was so casual, it felt like I was sitting in on a practice session. On the downside, this looseness leaked into their performance, and not in a good way (a la last year’s Bonnie Prince’ Billie show). There were many nice moments, usually involving the ghostly pedal steel. But none of those nice moments ever amounted to a good show, overall.

Musically, they straddled the line between Dylan-esque country/folk and haunting, slowcore-ish balladry. Vocally, they were somewhat stronger, with the female vocals hinting at Mazzy Star territory. The male vocals usually veered too close to Bob Dylan-isms, almost uncomfortably so. But such comments weren’t enough to keep a few people from two-steppin’ out on the dance floor, much to the band’s amusement.

The band even admitted that they were rusty on some of these songs, as if it wasn’t obvious enough. There were moments when I got a glimpse of the band’s true potential, enough that I have a feeling that seeing the band at the height of their powers would be something to behold. Sadly, that wasn’t the case this time.

Amidst drunken catcalls, Knife in the Water took the stage. After engaging in some light banter with the inebriated parties, they soon began to weave their spell on the venue. Imagine the most forlorn elements of slowcore bands like Low and Mazzy Star, with a hint of Morricone, and the dark undercurrents of Nick Cave’s murder ballad fascination, and you’ve got Knife in the Water.

Many of their songs were skeletal in nature, with simple rhythms and sparse melodies. But that left plenty of spaces for the haunting pedal steel, church organ, and spectral vocals of Aaron Blount and Laura Krause to fill. Considering the venue’s meager sound system, their sound was lush and rich, and hinted at all manners of back alley stabbings and heartbroken bar crawls. Indeed, it almost felt like a fight was about to break out courtesy of one drunken patron, and I, for one, couldn’t think of a better soundtrack.

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