October 15, 2007, Rams Head Live!, Baltimore, Maryland
I hadn’t heard of De Novo Dahl prior to seeing them on the bill for this show. Other than a few tracks I sampled to get an idea of what to expect, this show was my first exposure. That being said, I don’t think there was much that could have prepared me for their set. They sported bright, tacky, sequined outfits that matched their apparent love of cheap, tacky 70s pop. However, both of these seeming improprieties are part of a broader whole that is predominately made up of rock and soul. The core of the band’s performance is singer/guitarist Joel J. Dahl, whose mixture of rock guitar flourishes and soulful vocals (including a nice falsetto) is the flag around which the band rallies. They would have done well to incorporate more background vocals from percussionist/omnichordist Serai Zaffiro whose breathy voice goes so well with Dahl’s, but that’s a minor complaint. Most interesting of all was how this quirky pop band was able to achieve two things that elude most of their peers. First, they rocked. Not just in the generic sense, but in the broken strings and drum sticks sense. They were powerful…and sweet. Second, they were down-to-earth. Bassist Keith Lowen’s nervous speech about their upcoming video shoot put the band on a plane with the crowd. After the set, drummer Mixta Huxtable walked over and gave a broken stick to a kid up front. Even without these overt examples, De Novo Dahl connected with an audience that wasn’t even there to see them. People danced. The crowd was excited. They won us over on their own terms, without even asking.
Bedouin Soundclash is the band I was there to see. After hearing Street Gospels, a huge step forward in songwriting and performance, I had very high expectations for the live set. I was certainly hoping that the set list would concentrate on their recent release, but only three songs came from that album. That being said, the songs from Sounding a Mosaic incorporated everything Bedouin learned between the two albums and sounded every bit as good as the new ones, muting my disappointment in not hearing “St Andrews,” “Trinco Dog” or the a cappella “Hush.” Everything that made Street Gospels great, tightness, flow, energy and soul, made their live set just as good. The problem was simply that they capture so much of that on the album that the live show can’t provide much more, making them victims of their own success.
I’m not a big Hot Hot Heat fan. They’re a middling band who’s released some decent material, but has never really found their own thing at which to excel. Unlike Bedouin, I had only moderate expectations for the headliner and by and large they failed to hit even that meager mark. Overall, their performance was as thin and dull as their imitation of the Strokes. They kicked off the show with a bombastic entrance that would have been cool had they either been an amazingly simple band (the irony angle) or as good as such an entrance suggested (the arrogance angle). Instead the band lazed through the set while frontman Steve Bays overcompensated, prancing around like Mick Jagger in a Broadway show. Interestingly, when the band finally kicked in on the last two songs of the regular set, Bays’ antics no longer seemed so affected. It was as if he was free to actually perform once the weight of the show was off his shoulders. Had Hot Hot Heat played the whole set like they did the last few songs, they would have lived up to their entrance and their name. Instead, they seemed more like Lukewarm Lukewarm Heat.