South San Gabriel and The Ralfe Band - Borderline 29/5/05
I've been meaning to write something about this for ages, but have only just managed to compose my thoughts. This was a pretty major night for gigs - and I sacrificed seeing Hot Chip or Lou Barlow in order to come to this one. This was mainly because, at the time of booking, I was curious about South San Gabriel's new full length - an unashamedly whimsical concept album about the (mis)adventures of a cat called Carlton. Did the evening fulfil its initial promise?
First of all, a brief word must be said about the Ralfe Band, who were somewhat demented. Their music seemed to encompass a plethora of genres, taking in Calexico-style desert border strumming, campfire laments, klezmer, Les Dawson-esque comedy dissonance and invigorating hoe-downs. There was also a wealth of instrument swapping (even a viola, the most cruelly maligned of orchestral instruments, was deployed at one stage). It was a compelling and highly entertaining mix, although I did find myself wondering at one stage if the band's considerable ambition and ingenuity with arrangements might risk outstripping their songwriting skills. I'll reserve judgement until I've heard more, but there's no doubt that there is plenty of mileage here and an album from this band will be schizophrenic, challenging and, quite possibly, really very good.
South San Gabriel (one of many outfits for prolific songwriter Will Johnson, who also records under his own name and witl Centr-O-Matic) were considerably less wild. In fact, they were arguably a bit one-dimensional by comparison. We basically got the whole of the new record and the same problem that afflicted the record transferred to the show - it's a bit one-paced, and the pace is relentlessly slow and drawn-out. The songs are long, stretched and very deliberate.
Still, the music is plaintive, haunting and extremely beautiful. Also, in constructing a cohesive style, the band have very much defined their own sound (although obvious influences such as Neil Young hover in the background). It's like a more reflective My Morning Jacket (withouth the occasionally intrusive 70s rock behemoth tendencies). Everything is bathed in eerie reverb, and the presence of slide guitar enhances the dusty, otherworldly effect.
Johnson also makes for a compelling performer. Even though he remains seated throughout the entire performance, he appears completely committed to the music, and totally absorbed within it. His vocals are soft, soothing but with a vulnerable quality - and the band have a remarkable ear for harmony. If you were not familiar with the material, you'd be hard pressed to know it was all about a cat - it is performed tonight in considered and serious fashion. 'A bit presumptious of me to know what a cat is thinking about...' Johnson concedes dryly, but he appears to have done a good job.