Thursday, February 26, 2009
An Evening with Thievery Corporation
Thievery Corporation came to Boston on Tuesday night, the third show for the bigger, newer, Boston House of Blues. Taking over the former Avalon space, House of Blues now offers a venue for midsize audiences. Upon walking into the music hall, it was evident that the place fills the same footprint as Avalon, with the stage at one end in front of a large general admission viewing area, with a bar on the left.
The place was pretty full by the time Liz and I made it through security (yes, those are keys in my pocket, and no I'm not happy to see you). I bought a $6.50 beer and Liz a $8.00 mixed drink. Note to self: next time, beer up before you leave the house. We walked around and it was kind of overwhelming. Bodies everywhere. We're used to the relatively intimate confines of TT the Bear’s, The Middle East, or even The Paradise. We walked up to the second floor balcony and staked claim at the very back, with a good stage sight line. Around 9:30 Thievery Corporation filtered onto the stage.
I say filter because they travel heavy: eight band members and a revolving troop of six or seven singers, rappers, and this guy who did a lot of shouty sing-talking. Formed by D.C. buds Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, Thievery uses multi-cultural musicians and singers to mix up an exotic goulash of globe-hopping sounds that conjure a set by a peripatetic DJ. All melded together with a jazzy, Brazilian, and dub electronic beat, combined with exotic instruments like the sitar.
On tour, Rob and Eric stand center stage, up behind turntables and (I'm sure, although I couldn't see it) requisite computer dials and knobs and monitors. Flanked on their right by trumpet and sax players and a bongo player. To their left a percussionist and guitarist/sitarist. And the hard-to-miss whirling dervish bass player, roaming the stage like a rubber band with long hair.
I never expected to see Thievery Corporation live. On vinyl they come across as a very well mannered (and very political) lounge act, leaders in world Buddha-bar, ultra-chill music. Stuff your mother wouldn't mind (or Liz's mother; she's a fan). So live I knew they ran the risk of coming across kind of meh. To help combat this possibility come the aforementioned traveling roadshow of vocal talent. Each song followed basically the same rhythmic template, but with different singers. This made the night more interesting, if kind of like a variety show. The horn section added a vital, organic sound. The bongos and percussionist were mostly lost in the mix, the guitar and sitar showing tame flourishes. The sound was extremely bass heavy, especially during the first few songs. Heavy bass is appropriate for a rhythm-heavy sound. And that's what Thievery Corporation boils down to: a smooth dance band. This is not a bad thing for Thievery lovers. You know a Thievery song when you hear it. You also know a song by another artist that's been Thieveryized (remixed, rerecorded, reconditioned). Thievery do their one song very well.
One singer introduced The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as a song the band co-write with David Byrne, who sang it on The Cosmic Game album. The guest singer started in on the song. He was fine, putting his own gruff spin on the vocals. But at one point he ran behind the band's riser and came around the other side. A move David Byrne used when Talking Heads toured in 1983. The tour that was used for their Stop Making Sense album and film. And this was not the first moment I thought of Talking Heads while watching Thievery.
Talking Heads also used world beats and musicians. The singer's nod to Talking Heads was apt, but it also pointed out what was missing from the night's performance: spontaneity. Thievery was missing one crucial element that would have made the band sound more, well, like a band: a live drummer. Not every band needs one (Depeche Mode) and some are better off without one (Big Black). But the entire Thievery show was performed to the aural backdrop of a pre-recorded drum sequence. This necessitated a coordination of the rest of the band to hit their respective marks, with no room for error. Or spontaneity.
The music went off without a hitch as far as I could tell, so things have certainly come a long way from Depeche Mode's 1986 Wang Theater performance when a malfunctioning floppy disk miscued a few songs and made the band's live limitations obvious. Seeing Talking Heads live in 1983 was like getting hit on the head with a new way of performing live, with an extended family of musicians whose love for the music and, for the most part, each other shined through, all anchored by Chris Frantz's drumming. This isn't really a complaint for Thievery necessarily, just a gentle suggestion to bands that augment their sound with turntablism, to try an organic live drummer and gauge the difference.
It was getting late and they hadn't played Liz's favorite song, The Richest Man in Babylon. Also, I had expected them to play Lebanese Blonde, the track that had made it onto the Garden State soundtrack, but maybe they were saving it until the end. We decided to skip out early. We walked back downstairs where it was twice as loud. We really enjoyed the show. And it was fun to see the new House of Blues. Recession or no, Boston seems ready to embrace the another place to see a show. Thanks Thievery. See you next tour.
Here's a live clip (not from last night's show):