February 14, 2007

Live In Ithaca

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One of the most bittersweet reflections a concert-goer can have in response to a band’s live show is incredulity at the fact that they’re not America’s newest obsession – on the top Billboard charts, booked at huge arenas, and all over FM radio.

This is my reaction whenever I think about The Slip performance last Wednesday at Castaway’s. After each of the three shows I saw, I wondered why the trio hasn’t exploded yet. They have all the right ingredients – they can play their instruments better than almost everyone else, they sing beautifully, their lyrics aren’t stupid, their live show is like visiting a much happier alternate universe and – I’ll admit it – the Brothers Barr have the rugged rock-star look; with their clothes, chiseled faces and long hair they definitely fit the part. Despite my disappointment at their currently limited popularity, I’m just happy that they’re around at all, and my anger at their obscurity is tempered by the knowledge that bigger success is either around the corner or entirely irrelevant.

The Slip has started at least two tours here in Ithaca. Usually they play at Castaway’s, probably the most reliable club around here. The club caters to bands that draw crowds large enough to fill the room, but not large enough to push it past capacity. Ithaca’s got a fractured and diverse music scene – a quality that is both an advantage and liability – and Castaway’s caters to it. In the past they have brought in both the acid-jam-jazz trio Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and the budding underground DJ Girl Talk. Next week a side project from bluegrass’s well-known The Be Good Tanya’s performs, and there’s reggae every Tuesday. For a full schedule check out www.castawaysithaca.com. It’s the kind of place where, if you get close enough, you can put your coat on stage, the kind of place where the crowd tends to be more than receptive, the bands sometimes spray you with spit while singing. Notably, the venue is small enough that you really get the feeling that the performance is just for you. When a band like The Slip matches the potential of a club it’s truly a rare, beautiful marriage.

The Slip, although difficult to categorize, is an avant-garde jam-rock trio from Boston. With only three members, brothers Brad and Andrew Barr — who, aside from providing lead vocals also play guitar, banjo, harmonium, drums, glockenspiel — and Marc Friedman on electric bass and guitar, they produce a sound far larger than their small numbers would initially suggest. Individually each musician is a virtuoso and when they get together and begin listening to each other, they provide a real treat.

The Slip has been touring together since 1996. I saw them first in 1999, at Oberlin College, and then again in 2004, here in Ithaca. Their music has come away from a jazz and experimental sound and moved towards fuzzy psychadelia and short pop jams. Though their style may have changed, some things have remained consistent: poetic lyrics, riff-rich guitars, and full-bodied singing from Brad, lock-step drumming from Andrew, and the calming hum of Marc. The Slip’s shows, luckily, follow a similar vein – in 1999, their set lasted over two hours, and their latest concert here was a marathon two and a half hour performance

I’ve seen incredible things done at The Slip’s shows; everything from hula-hooping, tai chi, people dancing their pants off, the consumption of mass quantities of pot, singing and jumping up and people closing their eyes and passing out in a blissful reverie. These sort of things make the show’s audience part of the spectacle. While it’s definitely the band that’s providing the soundtrack for such live antics, the crowd definitely can make or break a show, and people who see The Slip are usually great people to share the experience with. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that even if I was the only person in the room they’d play the same inspired show, and I’d leave the performance feeling the same way.