The best live shows are those that you don’t expect to shock you into a new reality, the shows that wake you up in the moment, shoving you into new understanding about an artist, about a band, about how their music travels from their studio to the live venue. A few months ago I reviewed the latest record by The Helio Sequence, “Negotiations” (Sub Pop), which was my introduction into the work and the hidden technological world of the Portland-based Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel.
In my review I think I got a few things right, but I completely missed others. For example, I highlighted Weikel’s drumming but had no idea how extraordinary he is playing live. I couldn’t know the extent to which he takes his athletic physical playing style into the live setting. Because of the quieter nature of the LP, I also underestimated the power of Summers’ guitar playing and vocal range on stage, and the sonic range of sound and texture he finds inside one guitar hooked up to an effects unit.
From their opening song, “One More Time,” I heard a whole new band, a whole new set of songs I thought I knew from their records. In my review I left off a few essential adjectives, which I’ll add here: dumbfounding, hypnotic, jaw-dropping, and stunning. Rereading what I wrote then, I can see that without having seen The Helio Sequence do what they do, live, was to miss just how creative these two musicians are with instruments and software, and how skillfully and seamlessly they take their studio work into live settings and fill theaters with sound and meaning. I was an innocent, but I am no longer.
First, a few words about the venue. This concert was my first in the recently renovated Neptune Theatre in Seattle. For Washington State, the University District of Seattle has a long history in music and theater. Called “Pioneer Farm” in 1891, plans to create a Seattle university on this “suburban” acreage, first called the “Interlaken Campus,” came early from the minds of the city’s land speculators. The forest was cleared, the years passed with several versions of an evolving campus into what eventually became the University of Washington. Known today for science and medicine, the university environs still manage to shelter a lively ecosystem of edgy creatives and artistic chancers.
Seattle has been an art-house motion-picture town dating back to 1909 with the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. Movies need theaters, and thus the Neptune opened its doors in 1921 for showing silent films. Musically speaking, this venue designed to house its giant Kimball theatre organ (now gone), said to be the largest pipe organ on the West Coast back in the day, gave audiences and movies big sound inside the Neptune from opening day.
In 2011 the theater interior was redesigned to accommodate live music, allowing for a pit area where fans can stand in front of the stage. The renovated sound system is thundering. Seattle is short on great venues (not just repurposed movie houses where you stand uncomfortably the whole evening in front of a fixed movie seat) for the many bands that can easily draw up to a thousand fans. Finally, The Neptune is a well-done venue for modern audiences and modern shows.
And now, about the show. It was an evening of discovery, of learning about one band I didn’t know, Talkdemonic (opening act), and rediscovering a band I thought I knew, The Helio Sequence. First, let’s talk Talkdemonic, another creative music duo out of Portland (touring, this band adds extra players, as they did this night with a bass player and another multi-instrumentalist and keyboard player). Kevin O’Connor, the band’s drummer, and Lisa Molinaro, a multi-instrumentalist whose music is built around her playing viola, were the perfect match for The Helio Sequence.
My only criticism of Talkdemonic’s evening set doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of their music, just that their set was too short. I was at the front of the stage, about five feet from O’Conner’s kick drum, close enough to work out the brand of his socks. I’ve never been that close to a drum kit in a live show, which was set at the front of the stage in front of The Helio Sequence’s gear, too far forward in my opinion. I could feel their sound inside my body.
Talkdemonic’s sound is an instrumental electronic/processed music without lyrics, combining effects units with banjo and viola and bass guitar to create enormous shoals of rhythm, sound, and texture, all flying off O’Conner’s bone-cracking drum lines. To my mind, it’s also a kind of loud romantic sound, mood invoking, imagistic, which fit perfectly with where The Helio Sequence is heading with “Negotiations.” These two bands should tour together more often. Talkdemonic is out in support of their 2011 release, “Ruins” (Glacial Pace Recordings), but they have three other records as well: “Mutiny Sunshine” (2005), “Beat Romantic” (2006), and “Eyes at Half Mast” (2008). Get these and get in touch with your inner viola.
The Neptune show was the end of a tour for The Helio Sequence, so the evening felt festive and exciting like the start of summer break. Much of what they played was drawn from their new release, but they played songs from all their records. I already mentioned the opening track, “One More Time,” but other standouts were “Downward Spiral” and “The Measure.” In looking over the lyrics for “The Measure,” I’m amazed at the clarity of vision crafted into this song. Not one word out of place. Played live, it becomes hypnotic. In fact, their whole set almost felt like a unified series of linked songs rather than one song after another on a set list. Other personal favorites were the “Harmonica Song” (Summers is an accomplished harmonica player as well) from “Love and Distance” (2004), and “Hallelujah” from “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” (2008).
Summers and Weikel played without hesitation, flowing from song to song, barely pausing between each. They seemed almost surprised to see the theater so full of fans (not sold out, but close to capacity), which added to the festive feeling of the evening. I frequently got so caught up in the performance I had to force myself to take notes and pictures.
In my review of “Negotiations” I touched on the sense of worldly separation I got from these artists and their studio work. In person, they give off an intensity that still feels private somehow, even as they travel and perform. The electronic magic they use to create the range of guitar and drum effects on stage speaks of hours in the studio crafting every detail of every song for maximum emotional and stage effect. These are introverted technological geeks (I mean that in a reverential way) with the souls of world travelers, seekers, and storytellers.
Their live show was perfect. I trekked down to Seattle thinking this would be an average show on an average night in support of an admittedly exciting new record, but still not rising too far above the studio versions. Instead, it was one of those shows that blew out the cobwebs and reshaped my understanding of a band I now consider one of the best of the year, and it’s only February! For you vinyl geeks out there, I’ve seen a few copies of the “Loser” edition of “Negotiations” (Sub Pop), on gorgeous colored vinyl resembling moonlight (to my eye). If you’re quick, you might still find one floating around out there.
If I have a complaint about my first evening at the mighty new Neptune, it’s that their idea of setting up merchandise sales in a narrow hallway on the second floor of the theater makes for mob-scene congestion with people trying to sort themselves into lines for the restrooms as well as the merchandise tables. I got out of there pretty quickly. I never got to the Talkdemonic table to buy their amazing records (thankfully we all have The Business to get those must-have special orders).
Talkdemonic is amazing. It’s understandable why they’ve opened for bands like Modest Mouse and The National. A band to collect and follow. The Helio Sequence, they have grown far beyond their earlier records into a rich mature exciting sound. It’s time to shorten your learning curve and just buy all their stuff and go to every show you can in your area. Life is short. Make your music count.