Photo by Riley Sklar
There is a moment that I love to see--it's a very quick one, and you can't be too overt about watching it. It's when you see a couple, new to each other, but falling hard. Their eyes open slightly more, they linger on each other's gaze and stand close but far enough away to take in the object of their blooming interest. Standing in line to get a drink at Spider House on Saturday the 27th, I got lucky there.
I was still basking in the warmth of seeing new love when SMiiLE took the stage. Just before their set began they huddled over the drumset like an intramural volleyball team, hands clasped in a circle then raised in a cheer. I didn't quite catch the chant, but I want to remember it as something in French because as they turned around and began to play I did feel transported. It's what I imagine Paris of the 60s to have felt like, a clash of jazz and other foreign ideas, meeting together in this red-curtained world apart.
Musical sections would travel across the spectrum of style and intensity, most often returning to an exploratory space. The sonic walls of that room were defined by the well-articulated ostinato patterns of bassist Harrison Anderson and the wild-eyed and grinning drummer, Everett Bergstedt, who would occasionally explode into beast mode, pounding his drums like a Keith Moon bender. The siren voices of Annie Long and Mary Bryce often vamped over this structure in complex ways, an extended harmonic language spilling out into the room like smoke from a censer. The gravity in the room was completely released by the guitar, washing over all of us in Hendrix-like slashes, with Jake Miles falling to his knees, scooping the pitch up and down with his whammy bar. This wild space felt fresh and new, but it had hints of 80s fusion and 60s counterculture jazz. The clincher for SMiiLE's performance was the ease at which we moved in and out of that space.
Explosions of coordination transitioned us from our spacey home base into choreographed dancing from Annie and Mary as the band pulled into pulsing rock or continental-feeling indie strumming. There was a real joy that came through in those moments, Annie and Mary's faces lit up as their arms and bodies swayed and shimmied together on stage. Visually, their matching outfits, hose, and sparkled boots gave you the impression that you were at a taping of a French rock show from the late 60s. Jake's lead vocals were the connective tissue in these transitions leaving just enough of a bread crumb trail for the audience to find their way through this rapidly shifting sonic landscape. It was the best kind of journey though, where it felt like each new section was a different party and we were welcome at each one. The jilty rhythms of the guitar pushing us ever so slowly into the next destination.
None of this could have been possible without the rock-solid rhythm section. The truly capable Harrison's precision gave us a very clear and steady bottom-end, which was particularly impressive on his 32nd note breaks. If the left side of the stage was some sort of a French Ed Sullivan Show, then the right side of the stage was a small Seattle club where you happened to catch a bill from some band called Nirvana before anybody knew them. It didn't hurt that Harrison towered on the right side of the stage rocking his Magnum PI mustache and Krist Novoselic-like presence to its fullest. The drummer, Everett Bergstedt, gave a wild performance, pinning jazz-influenced cymbal work to speedily executed fills. I was struck by two things in particular: the strength and power he seemed to draw upon--it really felt like he was beating the hell out of the drums but not in a punk way, more like a Buddy Rich way--and his smile all the way through it. This was apparently his second gig with the band, and he really played the hell out of it and seemingly loved every minute of it.
All of this left me wondering where this came from? The influence of jazz was clear in the drumming, but it wasn't overtly jazzy. The guitar in its role as backup reminded me of the Throwing Muses, early 90s math rock but also the punk influenced pop of The Shins and finally almost a guitar version of Stereo Lab. Jake plays a very sweet guitar; his leads drew on sixties masters--Hendrix and Beck. It was a joy to hear an honest-to-god rave up in an indie pop setting. I think the secret mojo though was his lead-ish like work under his singing. It's tough because that kind of playing tends to go less noticed than a guitar solo - but I saw it. It was super impressive, complex articulations and arpeggiation all happening while he hunched into the mic emotionally delivering the lines, "Oh my God, I love you". We love you too, SMiiLE.
-- Photos by Riley Sklar: Photography at the forefront of Austin culture (https://www.rileysklar.com/)
Photo by Riley Sklar