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It was late in the evening of June 28th that I walked through the front doors of the beautiful Centennial Concert Hall. I ambled a lap about the place before happening upon the doorway that stood between myself and my seat. I stepped through the door, scaled a flight of winding steps, and crept out into the darkness, and the music of Dan Mangan. I couldn’t make heads or tails of which seat I’d paid for or where that seat could have been in relation to where I was. I took refuge in the first seat I saw in an empty row at the back of the orchestra section for the only song I’d hear of Mangan’s.
The one song I caught brought a ticklish burn to my nose and tears to my eyes that weren’t so heavy they would fall. Featuring Mangan alone onstage with an acoustic guitar, the song “Basket” is about his grandfather and the failure of his memories that came with the failure of his health. Perhaps it was the idea of singing for one who will never hear these words, so precious to the singer, that brought me to the edge of tears. I thought of my own grandfather and the conversations we’ve had, or, more accurately, the conversations I’ve spoken aloud to no one when he comes to mind on long and lonely nights. I tore my eyes from the stage, looked down the vacant row next to me and hoped to see him, somehow sitting there, sipping a beer. It’s not worth mentioning what I would have given to see him in any of those seats rather than the empty darkness that instead was.
Once the song ended and the next had just begun an older-looking couple towered over me with flashlights, reading their tickets and cautiously eyeballing the chair I sat in. Before they attempted making sense of the confusion, I stood up and walked back down the winding steps to the lobby.
After a bit of forgettable wandering, I tiptoed back into the performance area and found my seat while the house lights were still on. I had forgotten my glasses at home so I figured I may as well cross my already blurred vision. A quick run for drinks had me back in my seat midway through the song “Afternoon Delight”, played through the house speakers, synchronized with the stage lights. The crowd gave their best collective impression of Anchorman’s Champ Kind as they whooped along after “skyrockets in flight…”, all other parts of the song a jumbled half mumble that was never known well enough to have been forgotten.
The band meandered on stage soon after the song ended and the crowd erupted once lead singer JJ Julius Son came out and gave a quick bow. Guitarist Rubin Pollock stood to stage left with what looked to be a rectangular-bodied black and white Rickenbacker, though without my glasses it could have been anything. He would later play on a sunburst style Les Paul from the now bankrupt Gibson company and later a Fender Telecaster. The singer came out with a Telecaster, perhaps the same one. He later strummed a few songs on a simple-looking acoustic resonator.
The night began with “Broken Bones”, a song about a chain gang inmate who promises “the Devil’s gonna make me a free man.” A bluesy tale played with a grainy tinge -found both on the album and heard in concert, “Broken Bones” tells of the inmate's miseries and the duty he has to the Devil, and himself, to snuff out some indistinct character the listener never comes to know anything more about.
One of the biggest responses from the crowd since the show began came with the start of “Automobile,” a playful tune about whipping down an empty stretch of desert highway with a few bottles of rum in the backseat, Mexico bound. At one point in the story, the singer finds himself buying his way out of any trouble with the Federales by parting with a few dollars and a bit of rum. A small price paid for high-speed freedom, by any account.
“This is one we particularly enjoy playing” spoke JJ Julius Son in the latter half of the set, “because it’s the only we one sing in our native tongue.” With that, the map of Iceland that hung high behind the band began to glow and one lonely guitar began picking the opening notes of “Vor í vaglaskógi”. Sang entirely in Icelandic, it was the only song from the album that had only a handful of audience members singing along. Hearing only the singer’s voice, unimpeded by the screaming crowd, is the only appropriate way for a song with this sort of melancholic dramatism to be properly felt.
Through the entire song stood one man with a single lighter held high. For a moment his lighter was accompanied by someone directly behind him, and again on the top balcony. As those lights wavered, then flickered, then vanished, that one standing light held its burn throughout the song. As if the song fueled the flame and the light bearer played the part of middle man between something unspoken between the flame and the music. That one flame held until the words had all been sung, the band fell away, and the once again lonesome guitar drifted slowly into silence.
The performance was the sort to never be forgotten. The raw power of the singer and the instruments backing him sounded just as they did on the album. The runtime was in the area of an hour, which is fairly standard, but I hoped Kaleo would be among those shows that seemed endless. Perhaps they can only play for so long due to the rip in Son’s voice. One can’t imagine he can do that too deep into the night without risking the quality of performance in whatever city they’re due to play next.
The general murmur amongst fans as we filed out was one of unspent energy. I suspect this came in part due to two of the ten songs -“All the Pretty Girls” and “Glass House”- from their only available album, A/B, not making the setlist. There is also the factor of expectations for a show that has been sold out for months -with few if any tickets going up for resale- being so high they are impossible to meet.
One thought I had as I left the venue was why the choice was made to not play those two songs and instead play five new songs, until that night unheard by few in the crowd if any. It could simply have been that the two unplayed songs fell out of favour with the band. Or, maybe the band never enjoyed performing them all that much in the first place.
On the other hand, they will soon enough have another album to sell and a record label to keep happy with quarterly sales figures and other venomous slander best kept offstage and out of studios. They’re a group in their prime tasked with dragging along a golden chariot of vulturous record executives who can’t keep from spasmodically salivating at the thought of another contract signed in exchange for nothing less than the poet’s soul. But that’s only speculation about one show’s setlist, dug out of the haunting reality of a historically merciless industry.
Whatever the real reason may be, the set was performed as it was. Were I to have the opportunity I’d gladly watch the same performance over again, even without those two songs, or any of the others from that album, for that matter. Kaleo’s performance was electric and moving. JJ Julius Son has the sort of voice that is made for the blues. He sings with the sorrow of an old soul, a pain borne from another life not seen through his own eyes.