Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Mowgli's, Blondfire - The Griffin, December 12, 2013

The Mowgli's Random Acts of Kindness Tour

I caught The Mowgli's when their "Random Acts of Kindness Tour" made its way to San Diego at The Griffin last Thursday, December 12, 2013. Opening for them on this tour was Blondfire, which was the band I was primarily going to see.

I quite enjoyed Blondfire's 2012 EP, Where the Kids Are, whose title track was featured in a Honda Civic TV ad earlier this year. Fronted by Erica Driscoll (who formed Blondfire together with her brother Bruce, who unfortunately no longer tours), their propulsive sound resembles a dreamier take on The Cardigans, or perhaps Metric with more sweetness.

It occurred to me too late, but it's not a sound, infectious as it is, that lends itself especially well to live performance. Many of Blondfire's catchier songs are made so by the synth elements, which, at this show, were just recorded tracks, nullifying much of the "live" element. And the songs are not especially on the lively side to begin with, so, although Driscoll and the band performed decently, the performance was just not energizing but almost rather the opposite. The stream of like-sounding songs started to have a tranquilizing effect on me, and I was only roused when Driscoll announced that she was going to play one of her favorites, which turned out not even to be a Blondfire song but a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams."

I would have rather she had dug out their own best-known (and simply best) song from the band's earlier days, "L-L-Love," which was apparently featured in the movies Monster-in-Law (2005), Mozart and the Whale (2005), and, um, Bangkok Dangerous (2008). But she didn't play any of their older songs or even really make reference to Blondfire's history (like, back when they used to go by Astaire), other than to mention that their new album has been a long time in the making. Blondfire basically just showed up, gave a mostly unassuming performance, and then left the stage for The Mowgli's. Maybe, since they weren't the headliners, they didn't feel the need to put their best into their set and performance. At any rate, I still like Blondfire's music and am looking forward to their album.

The slightly disappointing performance from Blondfire did mean I needed The Mowgli's to be a lot better than I anticipated. Originally, I expected The Mowgli's would just be a bonus, as I did enjoy their one hit song, "San Francisco." Now, I was suddenly depending on them to be amazing, in order to justify the above-average price I had paid for my ticket. Fortunately, The Mowgli's did put on a great show, even if I couldn't recall any of their other songs once it was over.

The Mowgli's are an eight-piece band, which meant that small Griffin stage got pretty crowded. For such a large ensemble, their sound is not notably huge or intricate. Rather than yielding anything artistically or technically virtuous, the band's lineup more just supports its inclusive image as some love-loving peacenik collective. I don't know if it's really all that calculated, but I'm personally suspicious of any characters who would get up on a stage, as part of some "Random Acts of Kindness Tour," and dispense fuzzy messages about spreading love and making the world a better place.

Midway into The Mowgli's set, a giant drunk forced his way through the crowd to the front row, placing himself between two girls who were together but were thereafter separated for the rest of the night. As he gestured vigorously toward the stage with finger pistols, swimming motions, and flipping the bird, I wondered whether anyone would step up to try to deal with this jackass, but people's fear seemed to overtake their disapproval. I could see it in their eyes that the band members too had observed how boorish this guy was, but, not wanting to escalate a potentially volatile situation, they just tried to play it off as people having a wild good time, complimenting the guy's energy. Thus encouraged, the guy then pressed onward to rub the belly of one of the male vocalists who had gotten too close to the edge of the stage.

I thought to myself, this would be a moment of truth for these professed love-lovers. Would they recoil in disgust, or could they really be as cool yet warm as the words they put forth? The belly-rub had taken the musician by surprise; I perceived him hesitating that split-second while deciding how to react. Once he gathered himself, however, he did so with a smile and a high-five to the crazy guy. The hesitation told me one thing, but, ultimately, the smile and high-five told me more. Calculated or not, they were committed to this image, and able to put it ahead of any reflexive disgust. That was enough to impress me. After all, I consider "good" more a matter of effort than of nature.

Thereafter, the crazy guy would continue to grab at any band member who got within striking distance, even gripping the wrist of that same vocalist, who was, at that very moment, trying to play the guitar. Again, I could perceive some perturbation in the musician's brow, but he played on and then afterward gave the crazy guy another slap of affection. I honestly believe this crazy guy would have, given the chance, tried the same on the female band member or on Blondfire's Erica Driscoll, and I bet things would have gone a lot uglier in those cases, but luckily they never opened themselves up to that.

The Mowgli's played several songs. I don't know how many or which ones, but it was a very crowd-pleasing set. I find that The Mowgli's, quite the opposite of Blondfire, is an act that only "makes sense" live. I had listened to their album, Waiting for the Dawn (2013), before, and, other than "San Francisco," none of the songs really appealed to me. They were inoffensive but unremarkable. It's different when you see them perform those same songs live, however, because I think a lot of the act's personality isn't actually contained in the music but resides in the group of characters literally jumping around on stage.

It reminds me of when I was in my college writing workshops, and peers would sometimes read my work and question my language or even just claim not to "get it." When I would read aloud in my own voice, however, suddenly it would click and the feedback would be much more positive. Ultimately, it was a failure on my part, if my words couldn't hold up apart from my voice, because, after all, it was my ambition to be a writer, not a spoken-word artist. If I was ever to produce writing to be read on a wider scale, it would have to be with the understanding that I wouldn't be able to personally defend and clarify my work to every single reader.

Similarly, I don't think The Mowgli's music really holds up apart from the live performance—they're just kind of generic and forgettable songs—but, in the right circumstances (i.e. live), they can shine. When the band is hopping and dancing, and punctuating songs with warm words, and some are coming down from the stage to embrace the crowd, or other times inviting audience members (yes, the crazy guy) to join the band on the stage, that's when everything clicks and The Mowgli's seem like the greatest band in the world.

I would question, however, their decision to use "San Francisco" as their show-closer. It's typical, yes, to save your best-known song for last, building anticipation for it through the night. But "San Francisco" is clearly written to be an opener, as it is on Waiting for the Dawn. It announces the band and sets the mood. And The Mowgli's really don't have any other comparably energetic song that can so immediately pump up the crowd. It's just a waste to leave it until the end.


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