Concert Review: 2:54 and Widowspeak; Portland, OR

254On Friday June 22, Portland was treated with a double bill of buzzworthy bands in 2:54 and Widowspeak.

In the dark, moody lit, subterranean room of the Doug Fir Lounge, 2:54 and Widowspeak served as almost bookends around a conversation centering on professionalism and audience engagement.

2:54 have been poised to be one of the big buzz bands of 2012, at times the group has been seen in the same feverish light that early clippings from The xx had; simply the band has momentum. But how this momentum for the England-by-the-way-of-Ireland sister-group translates to the live stage is an entirely new conversation for US fans on their first full US headlining tour.

Hannah and Colette Thurlow are an interesting sibling duo, Hannah banging away a the sharp-jangling Fender Jaguar creating a large part of the atmosphere, and Colette offering up vocals and most of the groups theatrics. The dynamic has a striking effect on what the audience focuses in on. While there was not that many obvious critics and writers in the room, the ones taking notes tended to focus on the guitar work and quiet demeanor of Hannah, while the audience by in large focused on Colette’s dramatic presentation of the material.

2:54’s most well known songs have a pulsating rumble that sits beneath shimmering, dynamic guitar parts; the band’s set is almost trance-like at times. Songs like “Creeping” and “You’re Early” have been staples of NPR conversations on shows like “All Songs Considered”, and the band found noticeable recognition and applause when they launched into the lurching, bubbling riffs of their minor “hits.”

With comparisons ranging for 90s gothic, alt-rockers Garbage to the Cure, the group has big expectations to live up to, and it is more than apparent that the band is keenly aware of this fact. There is a fine line in professionalism and engaging an audience, and at times it felt that 2:54 were so polished that they were actors on a stage; well-rehearsed on sound stages, but not fully capable of connecting with an audience. Simply, the band feels at times that their sights are so beyond the smaller room venues and more focused on practicing for what they assume will be their inevitable turn at bigger theaters and festival stages.

The band remained very much in character throughout the performance, and there was very little in the way of banter in between songs. The silence between songs only served to reinforce the idea that this band was headed for a bigger stage, where they would not have to hear the conversations of their onlookers. At times, in between songs Colette would lunge and pulse her body up an down in an awkward, almost “Excorcist” inspired thrust that gave off an air of affectation.

It shouldn’t go without say that 2:54 are a very enjoyable band live, and with songs like “Scarlet” it is hard to deny that the band simply “has it.” There is such a sense of polish and professionalism, however, that the band comes off colder than their songs allow for; and for those who have heard their dark pulsating songs knows that is a big statement. 2:54 simply are playing for a stage much bigger than the one they are allotted.

Widowspeak

The Brooklyn based group Widowspeak have gained a growing following through the well-received self-titled album released by Captured Tracks.

The band is incredibly focused on crafting a singular sound throughout their set, not letting the mood slip out of the set’s smoky pocket. This is not to say there are not any changes in pacing and timbre. Widowspeak certainly has mellow songs, but the set was punctuated by the occasional “up-beat” moment that would flow into a near raucous rumble filtered through a very defined aesthetic.

The band started the set with a yet-untitled song not pulled from their album; with shimmering guitar and dissonant noise the song set the tone for the show.

With a relatively small crowd, mainly comprised of an over-40 set, of probably NPR listeners, Widowspeak was at a slight disadvantage beginning their set before a more receptive and youthful audience would arrive. But by their third song, the Morricone inspired “Gun Shy”, a diverse crowd had emerged from the bar to enjoy a band that was both intimate and engaging.

Singer Molly Hamilton took stage banter to full-conversation stating, “Today I just got my driver license.” This prompted the audience to ask why she hadn’t had one before. “I live in Brooklyn, I don’t even have a car,” responded Hamilton. It was at this moment that Hamilton, and band had the audience in the palm of their collective hands.

The arpaggiated guitar work of Robert Earl Thomas helps give the group a level of sonic balance that lifts the band out of a fatalistic droll. The simplistic, almost Moe Tucker-esque drumming plays well within the New York musical vernacular, rooting the band firmly within the context of its frequently mentioned influences without sounding like a tribute band.

On songs like “Nightcrawlers” singer Hamilton nearly channels Mazzy Star‘s Hope Sandoval, at other times she almost had a Chan Marshall hushed drawl that floated over the group’s dramatic instrumentation.

What sets the band apart form the pack of bands cultivating similar material are the almost primal rhythms in songs like “Ghost Boy”, punctuated by Spaghetti Western inspired guitar riffs. Widowspeak are a band that is aware of their oft-remarked similarities to more well established music veterans, but well within their own abilities to push their own sound above anything else.

Widowspeak plays intimate, captivating and dramatic music that is very easy to digest due to the bands desire and ability to interact with an audience entranced by their music.

This review originally ran June 25, 2012 on ssgmusic.com.

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