Califone, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee, WI- 5/19
Califone are not really a live band. Sure, they play live, but by
today's "live band" standards, they don't come close.
A commanding stage presence they have not, looking more like four dudes who
just got off work rather than musicians ready to thrill. Their light show
utilizes one more hue than a traffic light, making it less interesting than
a box of primary color Crayolas. There were certainly moments of
improvisation, but any attempt at skewing from notes or chords originally
penned never took off to the point of the unknown. Let all those "live"
bands handle that.
Yes, Califone are definitely not a live band. But they do sound fantastic
I've never seen a band replicate their studio sound in the live setting as
crisply and sharply as the Chicago-based quartet did at Milwaukee's Pabst
Theater. It was a lesson in refinement-how a band can perform live the
intimate intricacies of a recorded album and still maintain the "bigness"
required to powerfully project to 1,500 seats (1,500 seats that were
unfortunately sparsely filled).
Listening to Roots and Crowns, the group's acclaimed 2006
release, it seems one can find something new upon each listen. New sounds and rhythms
hidden among the layers, and you wonder if you'll ever be able to hear all
this album has to offer. Then, you witness Califone play the songs live and
they are able to show you it all in one felt swoop. This seemed to come
naturally, this ability to sound like a pair of giant Bose headphones
onstage. Those fortunate enough to be in attendance experienced not a live
show, but perhaps a fantastic version of sitting on your living room couch
listening to the greatest stereo system ever.
The hour and a half set featured a heavy dose of the aforementioned Roots,
as well as a smattering of 2004's Roomsound, a vastly underrated
album of swampy tunes and bouncing rhythms. Tim Rutili's aching vocals were
possibly the most impressive aspect of the evening's performance as he
delivered pitch-perfect renditions of songs such as "Fisherman's Wife"
and "Spider's House." Rutili's front stage mate, multi-instrumentalist
Jim Becker (violin, banjo, electronic loops), also added fine vocal support,
hitting notes in unison with Rutili that were enough to make skin crawl.
The set smoothly segued from mood to mood, touching on upbeat melodies ("The
Orchids"), quiet and somber ballads ("Our Kitten Sees Ghosts"), and
downright driving rock ("Wade in the Water"). "Rose Petal Ear"
creepiest clap-along song written since Radiohead's "We Suck Young Blood")
also made an appearance late in the performance, adding an eerie twist to the
already eclectic setlist.
"Pink and Sour," the opening track from Roots, finished
the set in a
percussion-driven drone of drums, zuni rattles, and other tribal-sounding
instrumentation. The unassuming percussion duo of Joe Adamik and Ben
Massarella played tight, calculated rhythms, and never once seemed to look
up from what they were doing. They played perfectly at every turn
throughout the set and were entirely focused on enhancing the melodies and
vocals of each song with as much detail as they possibly could.
Indeed, Califone may not be best suited for the outdoor amphitheater, nor
are they equipped with dazzling visual appeal. The truth is, their songs
would suffer if they were subjected to that sort of grandiose dynamic. For
Califone, less is more. Bombarding their set with anything extraneous
would cover the layers of detail embedded within each song. They want their
songs to be heard, not performed. It's music meant for the campfire, the
dorm room at 3 a.m., or in this case, a small, intimate venue. Those
who made it out on this evening heard prime musical craftsmanship from a band that
has only scratched the surface.