It’s a quarter to nine. And it’s empty. The second-story hideaway perched atop Kimo’s street-corner bar glows an ominous red – the walls, the lights, the Stella Artois sign above the stairwell entrance threatening the microbrews that dare enter. Red fits: for out-of-town bands, lifeless dives on a Sunday night already look a lot like Hell. The bloodshot hue isn’t helping, nor are the empty seats. A doornail thinks this place is dead. Jacko thinks this place is dead.
So chalk it up to the cosmic connection between the-brothers-'n'-sisters-bohemia, one that rings out with all the selective stealth of a dog whistle (when some scraggly, axe-wielding guy with long hair plugs in, somehow, the spirit children know). Or maybe it’s just the hippie body clock in action. Whatever. Point is, Long Beach four-piece Mode took stage to an actual audience – a living, breathing audience. It’s a quarter past nine. We have people. And they are getting rocked to the funked-up sounds of Carlos Santana’s electric guitar shooting off clear-the-decks solos while the rest of these players groove away, attempting to recreate the theme to Shaft. Damn right.
One of those “Mode is like the musical bastard child of…” lines probably belongs here, but this would entail references to Jimmy Page and George Clinton. Nobody needs that visual. Let’s fast forward, shall we? The Old Stoic mines much of the same gone-by, ‘60s-‘70s material, except replaces the funk elements with a throbbing soul-blues core – the theatrical, bombastic kind; more Janis than John Mayall or James Marshall. Throwback performers all the way, the L.A. quartet played the kind of inhibition-be-damned rawk!! music that goes over with the emo kids about as well as baggy jeans or NASCAR. Still, Alice Reid’s throaty pipes belting anti-cat calls over the heavily wah-wahed wankery of Stone Gossard (pre-Pearl Jam) lookalike Jet Black converted even the skinny-jeaned present. The seven plus minutes of the anything-goes behemoth “Dragon” allotted ample time for a who’s who and what’s what rundown of all things West Coast, from the jammy Summer-of-Love verses, to the churning Heart-ish riffs, right down to the charged histrionics in the coda – Reid’s contortionist exhibition doubled as an in-song power yoga exposé. Again people, this is California.
Which means you can’t have a gig without a little psychedelia. First encounters with Oakland’s Fauna Valetta evoke a knee-jerk reaction that is the same for all: “Holy shit, The Small Faces are back together?” The second, stronger reaction deals with the authenticity of the retro recreation. Impossibly modish to the point that you wonder if the drummer is the Pinball Wizard himself, the garage-meets-acid outfit exploded into towering drone jams the heights of which could only be matched by their own stiletto heels. Cosmic hypnotica glued together by thudding, pick-free bass lines and diffuse twin guitars, “Sleep By The Ocean” locked into an Eastern-tinged trance before ditching the stoner vibe for full-throttle fade out. It’s almost too bad this band doesn’t have a crazed tyrant for a frontman – Fauna Valetta could easily match the acclaim of Bay Area brethren the Brian Jonestown Massacre with a little more inter-group tension and the occasional on-stage fistfight. Alas.
Speaking of total unruliness, it took Branden Daniel just one song to piss off the lucky few listeners who stayed between acts to watch his set. “Um, it sounds great, but if you just turn it down a little bit…” suggested a rather ballsy woman, well dressed but allergic to distortion. After a sniping back and forth, Mr. Daniel concluded, “This song’s just for you – it’s self-deprecating bullshit. It’s called ‘I’m a Joke,’” and then thrust into some thrilling hard blooze junk lifted from an unearthed Jon Spencer session. Swaggering guitar 'n' drums stampedes, the electric hoedowns off his new EP drove out the noise protesters, bringing this once-again-unfilled bar full circle, and prompting the same guttural response from the remainder: that odd sort who needs to hear loud rock 'n' roll at 12:30 on a Sunday night. Dude, there’s like six people here. Turn it up.
-Words and video by Robbie Hilson