In a gray fedora, button-down shirt, and jeans, Vetiver frontman Andy Cabic stands as a portrait of classic cool, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would brag about it. Vetiver, a band often characterized by their association with Devendra Banhart and the rather contentious “freak folk” label, surpasses pigeonholing with a unique style that is simpler, yet more nuanced than any one particular genre. In concert, however, the band outdid even their own skillful recordings, extending delicate melodic structures into rollicking jam sessions without batting an eye. Much to the delight of an affably bearded crowd, Vetiver at times came across as a scaled-down reincarnation of the Grateful Dead, except with less hair and more synthesizers.
To remove any doubt (and effectively supersede my comparison), the band ended their performance with a nimbly-rendered cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Don’t Ease Me In.” But don’t write them off as just another bunch of Deadheads. Even their most Garcia-tinged tracks, such as the countrified B-side “Wishing Well,” were inculcated with small yet defining details—an electric organ opener, a mournful harmonica solo, the gentle caress of synthesized piano—setting them apart from their predecessors. Tracks like the infectious “Another Reason to Go,” a classic drifter’s anthem, featured an unexpected combination of rocksteady beats and blistering synth-horns that illustrated the band’s dexterity.
Vetiver provided their successors, The Clientele, with a very tough act to follow. Both bands began with correspondingly mellow vibes, but Vetiver’s performance set up expectations of escalation, starting off slow and spiraling into full-on rock-out, while The Clientele proved unable to fulfill these expectations.
The Clientele’s new album Bonfires on the Heath constructs a painstakingly maintained atmosphere of slow-motion reverie. Exemplified with the cooing undulations and smoothly enhanced xylophone of their title track and the tender vocal repetitions of the swooning, wedding-ready serenade “Never Anyone But You;” the power of the album lies in its ability to sustain this atmosphere, cradling listeners within it like a room full of pillows.
Somehow, this power did not translate into the live show. Despite the lovably British temperament of frontman Alasdair MacLean and the Alice in Wonderland languor of gorgeous keyboardist/violinist/percussionist Mel Draisey, The Clientele’s portion of the concert fell curiously flat, sounding like what Bob Dylan might resort to if influenced by Coldplay and consigned to adult contemporary. Plagued by technical difficulties, including a squealing mic that kept disrupting what should have been a dream-like flow, the band seemed somewhat deflated from the get-go. This deflation escalated into a sense of mutual boredom for the band and the audience, transforming hypnotic ambience into the monotonous chore of trying to stay on one’s feet.
I probably would have enjoyed this music a whole lot more if I was sitting down, maybe in a grassy field on a sunny afternoon, maybe in a room full of pillows, maybe tripping on acid, but the Earl just didn’t feel like the right venue to fully appreciate what the band has to offer. Moreover, perhaps because of the contradictory crowd-pleasers they had to follow, it seemed like The Clientele had grown too disenchanted with their own work, or at least this particular presentation of it, to garner the confidence they needed to pull it off, setting themselves up for what can only be described as a self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity.
-Written by / Photos by Hilary Cadigan