A folk hero made an appearance at the Rock And Roll Hotel on Friday, but did it make a sound?
While the majority of people in attendance in the packed room were obedient and riveted by British folk legend Vashti Bunyan's set, too many people in the back simply wouldn't shut up, begging the question, "Why did you come to a quiet, mellow show just to talk to your friends?"
Outside the bar, three guys rolled by and shared the following exchange:
"What is this?"
"Oh, it's the Rock And Roll Hotel."
"Bunch of D.C. hipsters."
It almost rang true, but it was actually a substantial group of Vashti, Vetiver and Vandaveer fans and a smaller bunch of wannabe hipsters. True hipsters actually care about good music and pay close attention. These people seemed to be there just to be there. To cling on to a crowd clinging on to a couple of great artists with sterling reputations and acclaimed music under their belts.
Too bad. For them. For the rest of the audience.
While Vashti focused on songs from her 2005 album, "Lookaftering," she sprinkled in some gems from her previous album, 1969's "Just Another Diamond Day." Her soft, pretty voice and gentle guitar plucking supported by sparse cello, violin, flute, keys and guitars -- and a bar-provided percussion section of cocktail-shaker maracas, empty bottle clinks, cash register rattles and the rustle of a plastic bag from the Popeye's down the street -- Vashti opened her set with "Hidden" from "Lookaftering," a love song with words that would make the most stoic lover teary as Vashti sings through the stonewall facade and right at the soul of the guarded man. Another "Lookaftering" song, "Lately," followed, and the flutist faced the formidable challenge of making her notes sound as temperate and beautiful as Vashti's voice.
"I wrote this for my children," Vashti said, "but it's really for their generation ... which includes many of you."
The crowd did largely consist of a younger generation born long after her first career, but the legendary folk chanteuse also attracted a good number of fans from her generation to the venue.
In between songs, Vashti shared her inspiration -- and glimpses of her life, of the long time between her two records -- but she spoke barely above a whisper, and the chatter in the back rendered most of this insight inaudible to much of the room. As a result, too many people tried to force their way to the front in order to listen unmolested, making the task of finding a pleasant listening location that much more difficult. An attempt by some in the audience to get everyone to sit down and soak in the music failed miserably. Smoking ban or not, very few were willing to sully their skinny jeans on the floor of the Rock And Roll Hotel.
Meanwhile, some conversational gems could be overheard, from the everyday mundane, "Where's the bathroom? I gotta piss," to the ignorant and inane, "Why does everyone have to be so quiet?" to this peculiarly interesting exchange:
Man: "So you use a condom, anyway?"
Woman: "Yeah, yeah."
Man: "That's cool!"
One guy who seemed to be the only Vashti fan in his particular group mentioned the Joanna Newsom show from the fall. It was an appropriate reference, considering that those two women -- though a generation apart -- have made some of the best folk music in recent years and have the best, albeit vastly different, folk voices around today. But unfortunately for this show -- while fortunate for that show -- the difference was that Newsom's audience was entirely rapt and respectful, mostly watching and listening quietly and attentively.
"Diamond Day" proved to be the most delightful bit from the past that Vashti would offer this night. And with "Against The Sky," a song about love of a place, Vashti explained, she best demonstrated her supple voice.
The crowd thinned some for the last band, San Francisco's Vetiver, which started soft and anonymously with a cover of Bobby Charles' "I Must Be in a Good Place Now," one of several well-chosen covers that demonstrated the band's uncanny ear for good music. Unlike the original version, Vetiver ditched the R&B inflected rock 'n' roll for mellow country folk, but it was an arrangement that worked well with the material and made the song their own. But as the band smoothly moved from sound check to set list, the talkative Friday night crowd barely noticed, prompting several "Shut ups" and shushes before one loud, guttural "Shut up!" from the area of the soundboard quieted the crowd -- but not for once and for all -- as Vetiver crescendo'd from very quiet to merely quiet during the song.
Vetiver leader Andy Cabic's discussion of The Band's involvement in that Bobby Charles' record's production demonstrated Vetiver's obvious debt to The Band and love of roots music. Often cast in with the freak folk scene -- largely because of Cabic's friendship with scene flagship Devendra Banhart -- Vetiver really plays a subdued Americana with a good helping of twang, like a band from bizarro Nashville. That said, when Vetiver stretches out and jams a little, there are definite freak outs, and there is a psychedelic hum to the soft and slow songs -- something you'd expect from San Francisco alt-country.
But the band did turn things up a bit. Vetiver did get louder. Several numbers rocked a bit, and the band did plug in, enabling them to be heard above the crowd but also making the crowd feel free to chat even more. Why did these people spend the money to hear music if they weren't going to listen?
For those paying attention, which included a good number of the graying wine drinkers who presumably were in attendance because they were Vashti fans three decades ago, Vetiver impressed with their set. It was as delightfully long as Vashti's set was painfully brief. And while often soft and always textured and unconventional, the music was fun and relaxing, perfect for a stoned Sunday afternoon in the middle of spring. And the lyrics were heavy-hearted, earnest and surprisingly optimistic.
For the encore, Vashti joined Vetiver on stage to offer a real treat. Together, they played a terrific rendition of "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind," the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards-penned tune that Vashti recorded as a single prior to "Just Another Diamond Day."
The crowd seemed most respectful to the first act, the local artist known as Vandaveer. With a couple of friends providing touches of vocal and instrumental support, Mark Charles Heidinger sang songs that were at times humorous, poignant and thoughtful. On the folk scale, he falls somewhere between Vashti's traditionalism and Vetiver's alternative Americana. Like Vetiver, Vandaveer nods to Nashville, and his smoky-yet-syrupy voice is reminiscent of M. Ward. He had a pleasant and humble presence on stage, which the crowd seemed smitten with. For that, he thanked them sincerely and for their quiet and attention.
Unfortunately, the same respect was not offered Vashti and Vetiver. No matter how much the chatterers enjoyed the music and their evenings, they wasted their $18 and missed out on a once-in-a-generation experience. It would have been a shame if only a small crowd had turned out to share the experience. Instead, it was a shame that only a small crowd in a crowded room actually absorbed the experience.
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