Sunday, 13 May 2012

Bowerbirds, Paradiso 9 May 2012

Part I – the review

When it rains it pours, or so the saying goes and over the past couple of weeks in Amsterdam this has been true both meteorologically and with the number of good lives bands on offer. However this week and next things have really dried up on the live music scene, although unfortunately the same can’t be said about the weather.

With this in mind we did what had to be done and picked the band that sounded most familiar and took the gamble to get our weekly dose of rock and roll action. Or in this case perhaps folk rock action.

The band was the Bowerbirds, and they were described on their 4 line Wikipedia page as a folk band from North Carolina (which is in the United States, as was thoughtfully clarified by the bands keyboarder during the show). It appeared to be an accurate description, as a 5 piece band took to the small stage at Paradiso with a revolving combination of guitar, keyboard, drums, piano-accordion, violin and cello.

It turned out the reason that the Bowerbirds sounded vaguely familiar is that we had in fact seen them before. They had supported Bon Iver on their 2008 European tour and we had caught them at this very same venue but on the bigger stage. This is a show that is memorable for a couple of reason, one being that it was absolutely brilliant and is probably still in my top 5 shows of all time. The second is that it was my first ever show in Amsterdam and the night I met the one and only JV, sitting on the steps in front of the sound desk drinking a beer. So technically that makes the Bowerbirds the first band we ever saw together.

This night they were the headliners though and they had a very interesting band in support called Slaraffenland. To describe their sound is well beyond my writing ability, all I can say is that it was somewhere between jazz and experimental rock. Those words would normally scare me away but they had some really nice melodies, a whole lot of talent and were generally pretty fun. I ended up chatting to the singer/saxophonist at the bar after their set and learnt they were from Copenhagen. I also learnt he was playing a baritone saxophone, a piece of information that would cost me a loose change bet for my ignorance.

The Bowerbirds themselves were excellent, they graced the stage with everything you could want from your indie-folk rock band. The lead singer looked just as good as Jesus would if he was in a Hollywood movie and his partner was equally attractive but with less religious-connotation.

They played a lot of stuff from their new album, which didn’t mean a lot to me but you could tell by the reaction from the crowd that the older stuff still contained more fan favourites. Their sound tends to be pretty soft and slow with a lot of mellow harmonies and songs about nature or life in their hometown. The lead singer (Phil Moore) takes on most of the songs but his girlfriend and the bands keyboardist/piano-accordionist (Beth Tacular) also sings a few songs which breaks up the set pretty well. Her piano accordion also adds a bit of fun to the sound and keeps things moving.

The downside of sleepy, mellow songs is that they can get a little boring and it doesn’t give the crowd a lot of energy, which is certainly how I was feeling towards the middle of the show. It turned out this was also the final night of their European tour and several people commented after the show that the band seemed pretty exhausted, so this might not have helped. It also meant it was their final night with Slaraffenland who came out and did Death Wish with them. Despite the title of the song there seemed to be a genuine friendship between the bands and their song together was one of the highlights of the night.

Bowerbirds with Slaraffenland - Death Wish
For the final quarter of the show/encore they certainly got stronger and my conclusion at the end of the night was that I really enjoyed the show but I thought the band were only as good as the sum of their parts. Little did I know this would spark hours of post show debate and as such I will dedicate part 2 of this review to this concept. But let me finish the proper review section by explaining my train of thought.

If you put 5 talented musicians on stage to play folk-pop and their instruments of choice include guitars with cellos, piano-accordions and violins there is a pretty good chance I am going to like. I have seen these kinds of bands before and I know it is something I enjoy. And I did, no question about it. And unlike the first time I saw them, I will remember the show and have every intention to invest in some of their albums, particularly the older ones. 

But could have it been more than the sum of its parts? Yes. Maybe they were tired at the end of a long tour, maybe it wasn’t their night, or maybe this is as good as it gets for the Bowerbirds, but something was missing that could have taken this show to a whole new level. It can be (and was) still a really good show without it but what makes a show really special is when the chemistry of the band playing together, the voices harmonising, the passion of the performance and the crowds response all come together to make something you can’t replicate night after night and you can’t put on an album.

Still a great night out given why we went and I'd see them again next time they're in town.


Also see Part II - the debate: Can a band be greater the the sum of its parts?

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