It was a night of “R” bands with a propensity for using plenty of synthesizers. And of course, it was a weekend, so Electric Owl wanted the rock kids out of there by 10:30. Due to a series of setbacks and uncompromisingly-lengthy sets (this is a good thing!), we were actually there for about an hour later than that, and no one was lined up outside for any form of club night afterwards, so I’m not too sure what happened there.
Radiation City was up first, a Portland 5-piece with stacks of keyboards and plenty of dance party (going on on stage right, in the dark… guitarist Cameron Spies and bass player Dasha Shleyeva were bopping up a storm over there). The stage was crowded with Rey Pila’s drum kit, which was in the middle front of the stage rather than towards the back, so it was a bit unusual to have to peer at Radiation City’s drummer Randy Bemrose over the top of another set of drums. I assume this was to help keep the band changeover times a bit slimmer. As expected on so early a Saturday night, the crowd was a bit sparse, and hanging back at their tables still. This did not dull the demeanour of the band at all, and an interested collection of people lined up politely about 10 feet from the stage to watch from a bit closer up. Radiation City contains three girls, two of whom do most of the vocals, but they manage to not come off as a ‘chick band.’ Spies contributes vocals as well from time to time, and the girls’ voices sift their way through acres of synthy warmth. Even though they were on first, they actually are a nice bridge between the ultra-indie Rentals and the deeply new-wave/electro Rey Pila. They were a beautiful start and I wish more people had been around to see them.
Rey Pila was on next. This is a band I have only recently begun listening to, after being approached to do an interview with them. I took a listen through some tracks that were sent to me before reading anything else about them – at this point, I wasn’t sure if Rey Pila was a guy or a band – and was quite floored for a start. Big synths, at times galumphing, at times twinkly, chugged through deep, throaty, very new-wavey vocals. I was thrilled to bits about the music and excited to see this group live. Shortly, I discovered they hail from Mexico City, a fact that shouldn’t matter at all in this kind of a digital world, but is somehow still surprising. It’s rare to hear of a band from Mexico, and while I don’t know what I would expect to hear, it certainly wasn’t this. Anyways, out they came after a frenetic set changeover. Rey Pila is another 5-piece group, also heavy on the keys and machines. The songs they perform have such dense arrangements, even five guys don’t have enough hands to play all of it live, so they were relying on some loops to pad out the digital background soundscape. They were unfortunately plagued with technical difficulties – non-functioning pedalboards, monitor mixes that never seemed to quite be doing the right thing, and a migrating kick drum mic hampered an already delayed set.
Overall, they seemed crammed into too small a space on that stage as well. With the drums closer to the front, the set-up was bisecting, leaving guitarist Rodrigo Blanco stranded on an island of his own malfunctioning pedals to the left. Frontman Diego Solórzano controls the small portion of the stage he seems trapped in, whirling in circles aloft, even leaping off the stage at one point to dance through the crowd (leaving one fellow playing a bit of jumprope over top of the mic cord as Solórzano moved back and forth). Before hopping back onto the stage, Solórzano popped an arm over my shoulder and, looking up at bass player Miguel Hernández and guitarist Andrés Velasco, shook his head and said “It’s so weird watching them play from here.” I rather thought the two of them somehow looked like baby birds, often mirroring one another, faces hidden by hair, ringed by a nest of pedals and a collection of synths that Hernández was mostly in charge of. While Blanco and the band’s tour manager struggled with the pedal board issues, the rest of Rey Pila at turns continued with the set, and sometimes attempted a bit of banter. Someone in the audience urged Solórzano to tell a joke. He grinned at the crowd and said, ” Oh I’m not good at that. I’m not good at talking!” The answer to this was… a drum solo! Sebastian Farrugia delivered a brief one as Solórzano intoned that he’d never thought he would see that in his entire life. Eventually, the guitar was patched direct through the amp and with one final “Fuck the pedalboard!”, they were off and running again. Halfway through the actual set, I came to the realization that my earplugs had been severely distorting the sound. I guess whatever specific decibel level all this band’s punchiness comes through at is exactly what those crappy foam earplugs cut out. So a word of advice… do yourself a favour and experience this one set earplug-free if you don’t have a fancier pair of them. They are well worth a bit of ringing. Rey Pila was far more aggressive live than I would have anticipated from the studio tracks. It is very cool music, and they are a great joy to watch, even through a lot of hurdles on this particular evening. Can’t wait to see them again some day! Pay attention!
Up next – The Rentals! What a great thing – back on the regular Rentals horse after 15 years, head honcho Matt Sharp put out a new LP last year and is now gracing us all with his live presence. He is a man who never does things the normal way, and his live shows are no exception. He employed the services of 6 musicians tonight, including the ladies from Radiation City, Patti King and Lizzy Ellison, on vocals, synths and violin, guitarist Ryen Slegr (from Ozma), bassist Shawn Glassford (of STRFKR), Jared Shavelson on drums and another who’s name I regrettably did not catch on guitar. Over the years, Sharp has employed a huge range of players both on his albums, and live, and this was certainly no exception. There were so many bodies and instruments clogging the itty bitty Electric Owl stage, it’s a wonder more calamities didn’t happen. Bass and guitars stage right were bounding around happily – serious massive grins across their faces whenever I would catch a glimpse of them over top of other people and instruments. Slegr was hidden behind a curtain a lot of the time and often on his knees, often spotted with one shoulder hiked up to his ear. King and Craig perched behind their substantial synth towers, adding those characteristic female vocals to the Rentals’ material. Sharp himself though is quite a thing to watch. He is, in a pair of words, not shy. Not one bit. He gestures hugely, spreading every limb in opposite directions, hanging himself over the edge of the stage, supported by a foot on a monitor. He hauls out a bullhorn from time to time, and smashes wildly at a tubular drum pad positioned near his feet. This thing caused some problems as well, at first via a cable that refused to stay plugged in, and later from a misplaced drumstick that was later located atop one of the amps near the back of the stage. The missing stick didn’t deter Sharp from using the drum pad though – he just hit it with his hand instead. He makes intense eye contact with audience members, even using their heads as support or just ruffling their hair from time to time.
Inter-song banter was brief, mostly just making some exclamation about Vancouver. “Vancouvs… anyone ever call you guys that before?” We were also regaled with a brief story about how thankful they were for their stand-in sound guy tonight after their own sound guy got detained at the border for his numerous convictions. “I’ve listed 10 convictions already… need I go on?” is apparently what was heard uttered by a border security guard. Late in the set, Sharp split the room “like Quiet Riot in 1985” to have us shout out the ‘heys’ and ‘hos’ in “Big Daddy C.” Each time he would summon a half of the room to shout their part, he’d fling both arms in a huge arc over his head to indicate the appropriate section. Much like Rey Pila, the Rentals set was also much more aggressive than I would have imagined. Through my limited experience with the music over the years, I had this clearly-misled impression that they were kind of just mellow dorky indie rock with lots of bipping and booping. No, there is a lot of sweat and feedback and hollering involved alongside all the sweet girly harmonies and humming Moogs. It was a hell of a lot of fun, engaging from start to stop. As the set was already running well overtime, there was not really a break before the ‘encore,’ though we were still warned about the impending regular set end two songs before it happened. Someone in the crowd yelled, “Bullshit!” and Sharp replied, “yes yes, that may well be bullshit…” Anyhow, Sharp sent everyone off the stage as he hauled out an odd looking instrument and mentioned he needed a moment to set up. “It’s not Friends of P!” he shouted at someone’s guess as to what the set up was for. He and the girls perched on the edge of the stage, asked the audience to sit down and shut up, and quietly, a soft song to the tune of “She Says It’s Alright” poured out of this strange contraption in Sharp’s lap. The girls were in charge of the mics – King was amplifying the instrument, and Ellison, Sharp’s voice, but they all joined in on the chorus. This was a huge hit with the room. After a couple more songs with the full band, the set ended with, of course, “Friends of P,” and the audience was indeed satiated for the night.