Psychedelia Had a Baby and They Called It Geek Soul: KCRW’s Orpheum Concert, Indie Rock and the Style Question

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If you grew up, as I did, in the age of glam rock followed by punk, you tend to think that the point of being a rock star is to strut your stuff and have fun with clothes, the zanier and less like regular life the better. So, from a purely style perspective I’ve been perplexed by many of today’s indie rock bands, that seem to make a point of making no statement whatever with clothes, nor any kind of stagey sexual persona.

This was on my mind during KCRW’s Are Friends Eclectic? concert last week at the Orpheum, as the first four bands – Other Lives, Belle Brigade, White Denim, Secret Sisters — played terrific music in a uniform of jeans, untucked shirts, cardigans and, for many of the men, straggly beards. Later I got the chance to talk to the lead singer of White Denim, a wonderful songbird and thoughtful person named James Petralli. I asked him to explain the thinking behind his non-“look.” He said, in all seriousness, that his stage persona concept was “teacher.” Teacher! No wonder Mick Jagger still has pull.

Despite their lack of sartorial connection to Jimi Hendrix et al, hubby Bennett Stein, aka The Good4NothingConnoisseur, thinks today’s indies are the bearers of the legacy of Jimi and the other “psychedelic rock gods of the 60s and 70s” and he explains how here. He opens with his reaction to the opening band, Other Lives, who played against a backdrop of what he describes as a “Haight-Ashbury Rorschach light show.”

They were dressed like smack out of Clint Eastwood’s “High Plains Drifter,” all muttonchops beardy hippie vests, chaps, pioneer frocks and spurs. Other Lives could have been a super group made of cast-offs from H. P Lovecraft (the excellent 60s underground band, not the Goth horror writer), the Floyd, the Dead and Incredible String Band. They flew us to a moonlit, moss-carpeted neon grove. Lead singer Jesse Tabish crooned like Orpheus, a beautiful freakin’ voice. Then throughout the set I swear each band member grew six extra arms to three or more instruments per song, often simultaneously like Rahsaan Roland Kirk; one gizmo with strings, one you blew into, one you banged on.

Belle Brigade (right, in photo by Jeremy Garcia) came on with a sister/brother lead harmony vocal power duo set to old timey jug band juke undergirded by a badass, hollow body, electric lead guitarist. The lyrics, the voices, the pulse added up to a sparkling in-your-face, upside down, squashed romanticism. All saps in the audience were catapulted from the theatre by ejector seat. Clearly we were in for a new kind of sophisticated, non-fluffy, non-shoe-gazing night of musical fare. Then came White Denim. Two words, Holy ****!

They started with a softly crescendofying bit of Hendrixonian sound texture right off Axis Bold As Love. This was just a procedure to remove all gravity from the hall. It was something a classical orchestra normally lays down. Then they tore into a rip-roaring, double-lead guitar kind of rock-anthemic-instrumental series of ragas. I thought, dang, these cats got a live hot direct broad band T1 cable link to the fusion reactor of the 60s, the big bang of the second coming of rock ‘n’ roll (Dylan Hendrix Stones Who Doors MC5 Stooges Mothers Lonely Hearts Club Banditos, etc.)

I realized at that moment that White Denim ((in photo, above left, by Jeremy Garcia) is an improvisational rock quartet. Frankly I was stunned. The next tune was equally grand scale sound tapestry: I hallucinated a John Coltrane sax line through it, and I mean from his late Out Jazz, modal, Hindu, hyper-screach-O-sonic-atomic period. Thing is though, it was not noisy and uncomfortable, it was musical and centrifugal. It was nice of James Petralli, the only White Denim band member with a mic, to occasionally make vocal sounds like an ancient mysteries of Epheusis trance director crooning from twenty thousand leagues below your root chakra. It was uncanny, spooky and fun in a ‘what the hell’s gonna happen next?’ kind of way. It was like we’d signed up for an ayawasca retreat. I was William Hurt in Altered States astral projecting at Mach 10 past goats on crucifixes and ziggurats and lunar eclipses.

Next thing I remember, Zee Avi was bowing to every member of audience and her accompanist was slinging a Malaysian Sitar contraption that looked like it could analyse the chemical impurities of your stool. It made zithery/harpish harmonized string theory robotones – it tickled my composure and made me want to confess all my sins to the nearest pagan priest, probably sitting not two seats away from me.

Then came Anna Calvi. What foxy mutants they’re assembling these days! This power trio had to be graduates of the X-men Music Conservatory. They definitely had the fun with clothes thing that my wife deems important: A woman at a table covered in silver space lab foil worked a kind of diatonic button, harmonium, melodeon thingee, the kind that Beck and Ginsberg use to stoke prayer and chanty poems.

She also beat an upside down ride cymbal with a mallet, and had various shakers, Brahmin bells, a deerclaw rattle. The drummer flailed a dynamic spectrum of thumps, beats, beatings, cymbal tsunamis and sang as if he had swallowed three hopped-up witches all wailing out of his throat. Then there was Ms. Calvi herself, in an inexplicable blond secretarial bun and 12-inch dressy S&M pumps like she’s Anna Wintour’s girl Friday.

She wore a Fender Telecaster, which she wielded with unabashed, sloppy, fire spitting command. The Tele shrieked, moaned and coughed at top volume, it had to have used so much carbon based fuel it must have doubled the speed at which greenhouse gas shitstorms were hurtling toward earth to destroy us, once and for all, which put me into a meditation on our collective death wish. To paraphrase the Lizard King, we want the world to end and we want it now…

Secret Sisters were regal poised songbirds, wise beyond their years in their brimstone and gospel-tinged folk. I thought, wow, give me that old time religion, ladies. Then Jimmy Cliff (left, in photo by Jeremy Garcia) came on. Say, Irie. Say Irie, Mr. Cliff told us. Haile Selassie, another religiously-infused music stream in the house! He can still belt it out! And play the dandy in his spacey silver jacket. He had the youngest ska band ever with him, 19-year-old Brits, Rancid’s guitarist, all suspendered, tie-wearing hollow body guitarists and bassist who wore their axes down at knee-level punk style. It was cartoony. Cliff rocked but it smacked of Vegas.

Offstage, I found myself chatting with White Denim’s James Petralli, who my lovely wife was busy reprimanding for letting his band dress like college profs as opposed to glam rock gods. I stepped into the fray and was stunned to find that James was poised and amused by anything you could throw at him. Nerves of zen, the guy had. There was no way he’d just been out there on stage slamming mountains together like Zeus and Yardbirding, and feedbacking and Coltraning, derailing the earth off it’s axis. I got so engrossed in conversation with Petralli I missed Brett Denon and Iron & Wine. My bad. James and I had stuff to iron out. I had to depose him. I said, bro, you sound nothing like your White Denim records! He nodded sheepishly. I said hey, that was striking to discover. Why do you and your skilled assassin band mates do that? He just said, I don’t know, we just go up there and make our selves blank, completely open to whatever, empty to possibility.

I was stunned. That is how people like Ghandi, Rothko or Miles Davis are supposed to talk, not a bunch of college-attired, semiotics majors. I said, that’s freakin’ spiritually, esthetically evolved of you. And anti-mercantile I suppose, to not play your hits. He nodded. I said, so you’re an avatar for otherworldly, ancient spirit beings and deities. Beautiful, he said. I said, your band White Denim is about psychedelia, that’s what you do, you know that right? He nodded. It’s expansion of mind thing, we said in unison. Great, so psychedelia is back full strength, we agreed. Every band ever, then and now, is trying to do their Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band record. the Hip Hoppers, DJ Flying Lotus, Lady Gaga, even country acts like Neko Case and Wilco have made psychedelic records.. And it’s got very little to do with LSD, he said.

Then I noticed the back stage area and the theatre was emptying. I had missed the last two headliner acts. Oh well, even so, I was filled to the brim. Thank you for your time and patience, I said to James. No, thank you, he said, and I hope your wife will forgive us for dressing like college adjuncts. I said, it’s a non-issue, please. In fact, it’s a clever style statement and I call it ‘Geek Soul.’ He laughed and said, I accept that… James ran off to grab a smoke and I just floated for the rest of the weekend, remembering to stay open and empty toward everything that came my way, knowing, Psychedelia had a baby and they called it Geek Soul.