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Live Review and Photos: Dirty Beaches, April 28, 2011, Echo – Los Angeles, CA




Going into Dirty Beaches’ Thursday night show at the Echo, advanced assessments of Alex Zhung Hai’s live performances had varied from high praise to bitter criticism. In our interview with the artist, he acknowledged this, saying, “I think it is a mixed reception. Some people really enjoy it, but others expect something traditional and are like ‘where is your fucking drummer!? Where is your band?’ They prefer that, and I don’t blame them. They are entitled to. They want to be more traditional.” And if you have heard Badlands or seen Dirty Beaches live, it is clear that there is little that is traditional about Dirty Beaches, besides the American classics that the sound is rooted in. But, Thursday night proved that stretching the boundaries of what people expect out of a concert experience can be as effective as the audience is willing to let it be, and luckily, the Echo Park audience was more than willing to take the ride.

Opening the show were two sonically unrelated bands to Dirty Beaches, who found different levels of success in their sets. First was Neverever, a four-piece, female-fronted power-pop project that made friends with the attendees though the seductive powers of their looker of a lead singer. Dressed in a combination of sexual fetishes’ greatest hits, the groups surprised in its ability to hold the audience’s attention while seeming kind of bored themselves. This boredom was probably just playing cool, but a little warmth would go a long way for them.

Less successful was the eight-person Bell Gardens. What was most unfortunate about Bell Gardens’ set was how promising it all seemed. Armed with strings, horns, and a pedal-steel on top of the more traditional rock instruments, the band fought through a variety of sound problems (malfunctioning microphone, monitor level issues, screeching feedback) and never was able to get any rhythm. The Echo just seemed unable to handle the amount of people on the small stage and the band lacked the good humor to make everything seem okay, even if it wasn’t. By the time the sound was relatively fixed, it was hard to enjoy the band’s firing-on-all-cylinders finish. If one thing was accomplished, it was the spark of interest to hear what Bell Gardens sounds like on record (I would guess like a grander version of Sparklehorse) and what the band can deliver when given the proper platform.

Dirty Beaches could not possibly have sound issues from too much happening on stage. The set-up was simple enough. Most of the backing music came from pre-recorded samples, and Zhung Hai offered passionate vocals and occasional live guitar. The singer did not employ a mic stand, making playing guitar and singing at the same time virtually impossible. But, as How To Dress Well proved earlier in the year, this kind of performance can still be captivating if the artist is engaging and competent. Dirty Beaches is both of these and more.

Opening with “Speedway King,” as his recent album Badlands also does, Zhung Hai quickly showed why people would bother checking out this show, you know, besides the quality tunes. As a singer, Zhung Hai is ferocious, taking the concept of Badlands – a man possessed by the road – and extending it to the performance. Dirty Beaches’ live show is very much like a man possessed by the stage. The crowd fell to virtual silence throughout the short, half-hour set, watching the singer howl his melodies, point wildly to the audience, and offer occasional wrestling matches with his guitar through an assortment of effects.

Because of Dirty Beaches’ relatively limited creative output, Zhung Hai had to reach to fill up the set. This included a cover of Portland band Mattress on “El Dorado,” though the cover seemed as much like a Dirty Beaches song as all the actual Dirty Beaches songs. The crowd erupted for closer “Lord Only Knows,” the project’s best known number, and like a flash, Dirty Beaches performance seemed to be done.

But, as quickly as it took for the crowd to contemplate leaving, Zhung Hai made a 180 on his exit from the stage and let his on-stage persona fade away. Smiling, expressing extreme gratitude, and seeming genuinely thrilled to see the crowd enthusiastic that he was going to keep playing (after all, most 30 minutes sets don’t get encores), the singer said he doesn’t really know what to do during encores, whether he has to fully leave the stage for it to be considered an “encore.” He then asked the crowd if they’d rather hear a new song or “True Blue,” and the mixed reaction led him to say, “okay, I’ll do both.” Dirty Beaches thus finished up the set with warmth, showing a striking contrast with the seriousness of the first half of the set. But, Zhung Hai is never too stoic for his own good. At one point, he pulled out a comb to fix his greaser hairstyle, arousing hoots from the female audience members, and pointing to a self-awareness that makes all the madness of his music easier to swallow. People go to shows to lose themselves in music, but they also go to have fun. Dirty Beaches understands this, and early into this foray as a touring headliner, seems to be getting everything right.


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