Orange County is not somewhere I need to explain — Tom Hanks’ son, Mischa Barton, L.C., Gwen Stefani, Mike Ness, Mike Scioscia and Mickey Mouse do a pretty good job as is. It is the sixth largest county in the U.S in terms of population as well as the home of two professional sports franchises, Surf City U.S.A. and a massive theme park and hotel complex known as Disneyland.
So it may be surprising to hear that the county only has one venue that consistently books music bills that aren’t composed of the kind of bands better suited for county fairs or groups that make yearly appearances on the Warped Tour afternoon side-stage. Or U2. Yes, Detroit Bar is the pride and joy of the local independent music scene by circumstance more than choice; and yes, it is in a strip mall. Often in strip malls the section at the point where the two strips of stores intersect (like the middle of the letter “L”) is home to a bar, because the square footage is larger and offers more design choices. And in another reality, Detroit Bar would just be a neighborhood joint in Costa Mesa. But they have configured the space to host shows. And though it can be impossibly uncomfortable when sold out, there is something to be said for not dealing with L.A., free parking and reasonably priced drinks
The bill of The Dodos and The Deadly Syndrome did not turn my head instantly, but by the night of the show I was looking forward to the sets. The turnout was solid for the club that usually stays way under the radar, which is noteworthy considering that neither group were riding a new release nor making their first appearance after a long absence. The Deadly Syndrome offered up Nolens Volens in the spring, the self-released follow-up to their acclaimed debut The Ortolan, and have made scattered appearances at local festivals since, but have otherwise maintained a low profile. Considering the buzz of their first album,the band has gone an unexpected route both professionally and artistically, with Pitchfork basing their quite positive review of the second record on how much The Deadly Syndrome have receded from the spotlight. Apparently I missed this period when they were a much-hyped local act, but now it is not hard to fathom. The Dodos, on the other hand, were just in town in July as part of their cross-country support for The New Pornographers, ending with an appearance at Lollapalooza. You don’t get lights brighter than that. And while that stint served to both build exposure and road-test new material, Sunday’s set looked to establish something much different.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, The Deadly Syndrome are not a band you can just brush under the rug and forget about. I am the perfect example. I had enjoyed my introduction to the local four-piece at L.A.’s Street Food Fest during the summer, but never sought out their albums to further acquaint myself with their sound. Maybe they are the kind of band you need to see twice, or maybe I’m just lazy and forgetful, but I did not make the same mistake twice and am listening to Nolens Volens while I write this (and am thoroughly impressed). Their sound isn’t afraid to soar like Arcade Fire or, more recently, Local Natives. In fact, Local Natives seem like a combo of The Deadly Syndrome and The Dodos. Weird.
Now that I have the record, I can tell you that “Wingwalker” and “Doesn’t Matter” are both standouts in the set, during which guitarist William Etling fiddled with his peddle board, on a mission to hit the right tones and effects and taking his role of lone guitarist as seriously as a child whose given the hall-monitor sash. I was surprised to find out that the Les Paul spent so much time hunched over was hi father’s, on loan for the time being. And I’m not insinuating he was careless with the beautiful Gibson, but you wouldn’t have suspected it was a loaner from the ease and abandon he carried himself with while performing. From everything I have read, it sounds like the last couple years have found the band experiencing some difficulty in deciding to continue existing. Thus, the self-releae and minor touring seems to be testing the water for how and if they want to continue the musical careers. Or maybe they are biding a little time.
The rest of the band caught up with Etling as the set progressed, with their seeming enjoyment matched perfectly with the skill they displayed. And though I was not surprised when the band circled the drum set and banged away as a collective at the climax of “Eucalyptus,” I was caught off guard when the set continued on for two more numbers. The group happily lingered for the rest of the night, clearly a band that still enjoys being a band, but with the luxury of changing the rules to suit their needs. They may not have their names on the top of the bill, but they also don’t have to leave their home for months at a time to stay there. And with their ability to stir the spirit with a grabbing (after two times) live show and the fact that their style seems even more appropriate in 2010 than it could have in 2007, there will be a spotlight for them if and when they want it.
As for The Dodos, they recently completed their forth full-length album, and it would appear from their set, to kind of quote the Sufjan Stevens, that they are not fucking around. The first exhibit was the lack of a vibraphone on the stage. I wondered of Keaton Snyder had fallen ill, but later would confirm through their PR that The Dodos had returned to their original two-piece formation of singer/songwriter Meric Long and percussionist Logan Kroeber. The second exhibit that changes we afoot were the two electric guitars that leaned on Meric Long’s side of the stage. Long has played acoustic based guitars for the majority of The Dodos existence, if not all of it. So while this may not be as earth-shattering as Bob Dylan’s similar turn, it was a significant change for this group in terms of sound and attitude. Long later noted his apprehension for this show, as the guitar had just been purchased the previous week.
This was my third time seeing the San Francisco duo (other times as a trio) and each time has been distinctly different. I have seen them seem in over their heads, I have seen them swagger in a large room like seasoned pros and tonight, Logan and Meric seemed like, well, like they were figuring out that they are neither of the two, but rather passionate, skilled and engaging artists. Not that their love of music or enjoyment were lacking in previous sets, but here they came on stage and rallied through well known numbers “Jodi,” “Joe’s Waltz,” and even “Fables” with palpable intensity, surely intensified by the pork rind intoxication that Long was not afraid to admit to.
Not that they tired or lost the audience throughout the set, but the opening of the set was so inspired that everything else was besides the point. The Dodos came out and found something special that they have always had, something that easy to let dissolve into the shadows when thoughts about expectations and career come into the mix. It was like they realized that the best way to deal with the daunting future as a musician is to simply play the songs as hard as you can, break a couple strings and sticks on the way, and let your neo-folk tunes handle the rest. Because play hard is what they did.
I felt exhausted for the duo, and by the time they completed their set, I prepared to leave as if the notion of encores had never been invented. But the fans pleaded for a final song, despite the fact that Detroit Bar is small enough to allow for a band to excuse themselves from encore responsibilities. But Long took the small break to warm up his faithful acoustic instrument, and delivered two songs, the second of which was a peppy and well-tested “Red and Yellow.” But I was more affected by the intro-tune “Walking,” which I hadn’t heard them play live the previous times out. Maybe it was relaxed drums or the fact that Meric had his traditional acoustic guitar back. Maybe it was that they were playing the music that they conceived together, how it was meant to be. The two have undeniable chemistry with each other, but it took the quiet song to really appreciate the whole of the show, that something special happens when they make music and it doesn’t need to be tense and driving. It can breathe and succeed just as well.
And yes, The Dodos played some new material. It really wasn’t the moment to take it in, but (if you have the capability of using YouTube you can attest to this) “Contain Yourself’ be declared a future standout. However, this was a night about getting out and revisiting the past, saving the moving forward or next time. The Dodos should at least be confident in knowing that they need nothing beyond the two of them to make affecting music that people latch on to. They can command a room if they want it bad enough, but it will always be work. I think it is for any band. Hopefully this continues the confidence they need for the new album and touring that loom ahead. At least the ball remains in their court, which is more than a lot of bands can say.