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Live Review and Photos: Vivian Girls, February 22, 2011, The Smell – Los Angeles, CA

Last year, my friend Amity was visiting from San Francisco and lined up a show for us to see at The Smell. The Downtown L.A. all-ages venue is something of cult legend, notably being the stomping ground of No Age, Abe Vigoda, Health and a number of other fast-rising local bands. I agreed to go with Amity at that time because I, too, had somehow never managed to see a show there. And I kept that tradition in tact when I bailed on the plans. So when the Vivian Girls headlined the club on Tuesday, I was double-excited to both check out a new venue and take in the new tunes from the (formerly?) New York-based trio.

The club would be impossible to find without explicit direction or GPS. It is located in the middle of a city block, with access coming down a long, unmarked alley. Though the venue can hold a couple hundred people, it is narrow and long, making it easy to feel far away from the stage for how small the place really is. There is a vegan snack bar that was serving manicotti and chocolate mouse, and the water was a very reasonable $1 per bottle. Adding to the charm was the decision to have a special DJ, an eight-year old girl with a love of the classics, a determined focus, and some nifty DJ dance moves (her name was Nico but the poster also had her billed as “Part Time Punk Jr.,” an adorable homage to the weekly showcase in Echo Park called Part Time Punks).

This was the perfect place to see Vivian Girls, a fact that I believe the girls recognize through their determination to play there somewhat regularly. The sold-out crowd seemed to recognize this too, both in their respect for the entire excellent bill by showing up early and in their uninhibited enthusiasm for the main event. The room got sweaty, the kids started throwing their bodies around, and pretty soon, we had a classic Vivian Girls show that managed to honor their punk roots while stepping forward with more challenging, and more rewarding, songs.

The first band of the night was Cold Showers, which featured La Sera and Woah Hunx drummer Matzah taking lead duties. Was he capable? Totally. The band was a pleasant surprise, backed with driving bass and drums (the drummer rode the toms hard and was a nice change of pace from the snare-heavy punk drums that dominate the shows I see). But when the guitar leads and synth drone kicked in, all bets were off. Cold Showers became, well, kind of awesome. There was a definite Joy Division vibe in their songs, which is always cool with me, and the guitarist ripped when songs reached their developmental peak. A band to look out for, undoubtedly.

Catwalk came up next and were totally different, going with a three-piece set-up and more pop-friendly melodies. The drummer and bassist had personality to spare, but the singer was more reserved, which was a shame because the strong songs could have just used a little more selling. I have no idea how established or new this band is, but they have a strong basis (and good songs) out of which to build something bigger.

Finally, was Toronto band Austra. This was their second show in L.A. ever, their first being the FYF Fest-thrown Glass Candy show a couple days earlier. After two rock bands, it was disconcerting to see wires covering the stage, two lap tops, multiple synthesizers, countless pedals and switches, and even traditional instruments. With the amount of equipment required to make their sound work, it better damn well work. And damn did it. The second Katie Stelmanis begins singing, something special starts to happen. The music is described by PR as The Knife meets Kate Bush and I hate to borrow that, but it’s totally apt. The vocals soared with an empowering and sophisticated sexual energy, over songs that were not only attention-grabbing, but memorable in the long run. In fact, single “Beat and the Pulse” is the kind of hooky first impression that careers are made on. And Austra proved the FYF Fest philosophy, that you can create these bills of unrelated bands and, if they are all good, it doesn’t matter that their sounds are not related. Good music is good music.

Vivan Girls, speaking of good music, played their first show in a good while and showed little signs of rust. Of course, the girls have been busy, with Cassie Ramone and Kickball Katy releasing side-project records this month, with The Babies and La Sera respectively. I was initially worried as K.K. and new drummer, Fiona Campbell, seemed a bit frazzled when setting up, but then Ramone arrived and seemed deadly confident and brought the sense of order with her.

The group opened with three songs in chronological order from their three albums: “Never See Me Again” from the self-titled debut, “Can’t Get Over You” from Everything Goes Wrong, and the first single from Share The Joy, “I Heard You Say.” The set found a fine balance between old and new, kicking out the classic cuts with more than half of the songs from the new album. “The Other Girls” came next, which is the lead-off track on Share The Joy and shows the group really stretching. The song is more than six-minutes long, with an extended jam in the end that seems to be everything that Vivian Girls are not usually about. But, man, it works, both on record and live. In fact, all the new material is unmistakably new, showing the band growing and stretching, while not losing their signature infectiousness. It was also the kind of new music that was easy to appreciate through a live introduction.

The crowd was in the band’s corner throughout the set. A genuine mosh pit broke out about halfway through, which was fitting for the sound the Vivian Girls sell and seemed to gather the approval of the band quite easily. Kickball Katy even dedicated “Survival” to the slam-dancers, the rowdiest song of the night. Of the new tunes, “Sixteen Ways” is a clear standout and among the best the group has written. The tune plays into the raw agression that Ramone sells so well and gives her a memorable melody and plenty of snarl-space in which to operate.

And then there is “Before I Start To Cry,” which began with K.K. noting that she had forgotten her tambourine. She then said she would just clap and and invited the audience to do the same. With just Ramone’s guitar and the light drums backing the first verse, the claps brought the group together for the power anthem — a really strange moment for a Vivian Girls show. It was kind of beautiful. For the second verse, the drums got heavier and the bass kicked for Ramone’s most passionate and sincere vocals of the night. It was a moment, something that is only hinted at on the album version, something the band has graduated into the ability to create. Yes, Vivian Girls have earned their rock-star-stripes.

And even though the crowd didn’t really ask for an encore, the girls returned for about 2.5 minutes, the time it takes to get through “All The Time” and “No,” from their first album. The crowd got one more chance to freak out, the girls’ friends hoisted each other up on shoulders, and the night ended on a complete high. I was sweaty and felt the exuberance of the youngsters around me. These are the kind of shows I had always imagined taking place at The Smell and was thrilled that finally, if only this once, I had been able to participate.

Vivian Girls Setlist:

Never See Me Again
Can’t Get Over You
I Heard You Say
The Other Girls
Wild Eyes
Lake Eyes
When I’m Gone
Sixteen Ways
Before I Start To Cry
Tell The World
Dance (If You Wanna)

All The Time

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