Sunday, September 18, 2016

Quilt / Mutual Benefit / Soft Healer - Live 2016.09.16

Artists: Quilt / Mutual Benefit / Soft Healer
Venue: Antone's
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 16 September 2016

Mutual Benefit's setlist:
01. Madrugada →
02. Skipping Stones →
03. Closer, Still
04. Statue of a Man
05. Lost Dreamers
06. Passenger →
07. Auburn Epitaphs
08. Moonville Tunnel
09. Strong Swimmer
10. Stargazer →
11. That Light That's Blinding
12. Advanced Falconry
13. Getting Gone
14. Golden Wake

Quilt's setlist:
01. Passersby
02. Young Gold
03. Saturday Bride
04. Eliot St.
05. Roller
06. Searching For
07. Arctic Shark
08. Hissing My Plea
09. Penobska Oakwalk
10. Tie Up the Tides
11. Secondary Swan
12. Talking Trains

Local Austin band Soft Healer started out the night. They are a four piece with a vocalist/bassist, a lead guitarist, a drummer, and a keyboardist/vocalist. Their music was sparse, mysterious, and just barely groovy. They managed to remind me a bit of Can's astral jams with lead guitar inspired by the "desert guitar" of bands like Bombino and Songhoy Blues. However, while the bass and drums were solid, the guitar was occasionally a bit weak, and the keyboards were too low in the mix. I liked the openness of their sound and the unusual combination of styles and sounds they presented, but they could still do some work on dynamics and focus.

The main draw of the night for me was Mutual Benefit. Of the three times I have seen them in Austin, this venue seemed to be the best-suited for them, and for once the sound quality was actually decent. The first time I saw them was at a terrible temporary venue for SXSW, where they played a short set plagued by sound problems, but I appreciated the fullness provided by their seven-piece lineup. The next time, the band appeared as a four piece without violins or bass, and again the sound at the venue could've been better. This time, they again appeared as a four piece, but with an altered configuration. Bandleader Jordan Lee handled lead vocals, guitar, keyboards, banjo, and loops as usual, and Mike Clifford and Dillon Zahner returned on lead guitar and drums/backing vocals, respectively. But in place of Jordan's sister Whitney on keyboards/accordion/vocals, there was a bassist/flutist that went unintroduced and whose name I cannot find.

In the previous incarnation, I complained about the lack of bottom end and the confusion of the higher frequencies. This time, the high end was much clearer and well-defined, and while the low end was much fuller, the bass was too low in the mix, and many songs seemed to be missing central parts and melodies. Dillon's vocals were subtle but excellent, and the bassist did occasionally switch to flute for some of the higher melodic components (such as the main keyboard riff of "Golden Wake"), but the sound would have been much more complete had regular collaborator and violinist Jake Falby been present. He was part of the core of musicians that contributed to the new album, Skip a Sinking Stone, and was featured prominently in the great early version of "Not for Nothing" featured on the Shaking Through webseries. Whitney was also missed, and since she apparently lives in Austin, I was hoping she might make a guest appearance, but that did not materialize.

None of those considerations should be taken as a criticism of the performers that were present: the quartet all played well and created a warm, mellow bed of sound punctuated with Jordan's pleasing melodies and a decent rhythm section. Although there was a pretense of rock, the band generally kept to a rather modest energy level. In fact, if there's a critique to be made, it's that they were almost too restrained. The fact that the songs were a little under-arranged only reinforced that notion.

Nonetheless, their songs have such an easy, comfortable appeal that it was still a captivating experience. Their setlist was evenly split between the new album, Love's Crushing Diamond, and older EP tracks. It was a bit odd that they only played five of the twelve tracks from the new album, while they also played five of seven slightly longer songs from the previous album. They didn't even play the best song from Skip a Sinking Stone, the sorta-single "Not for Nothing"! I didn't miss most of the lesser second half of the album, but I was still hoping for "Many Returns".

[Mutual Benefit.]

The audience shuffled about quite a bit between sets, but surged towards the front of the room when Quilt took the stage. Their regular lineup of Anna Fox Rochinski (vocals/guitar), Shane Butler (guitar/vocals), Keven Lareau (bass/vocals) and John Andrews (drums/vocals) was augmented on this tour by keyboardist June West, who greatly added to the fullness of their sound.

They slowly worked into the lead track of their new album, Plaza, which gave the band a chance to show off their sublime folk harmonies and their psychedelic guitar explorations. The effortlessness with which they unassumingly wield their voices in harmony was truly fascinating to behold, and the guitarwork was great without being a spectacle of pure show. Their bassist was also talented and kept a great groove while occasionally even contributing clever melodic additions.

While some of their songs were surprisingly short, most seemed to be extended into free jam territory. They never strayed too far away from the core song or let themselves meander into blandness. Some of the best songs, such as "Tie Up the Tides" and "Secondary Swans", exploded into great instrumental passages, but then returned back into new sections of the song with lyrics. It all flowed together seamlessly.

I was surprised that, much like Mutual Benefit, Quilt played for just under an hour. There were calls for an encore, and it wasn't even quite midnight yet, but the show was over.

[Quilt.]

Scores:
Soft Healer: B-
Mutual Benefit: B
Quilt: A-
Skip a Sinking Stone: B+