J-Matt Greenberg is reaching the final cornet tones in ‘El Pistolero’, and you can hear a pin drop. More than eighty people are crammed into bluewhale, a tiny venue in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, to hear Whale Fall’s one and only concert of 2018. The seats and benches are full, it’s standing room only at the bar, and everyone is drinking, but there’s a hush over the audience that lasts until the song finishes.
Amongst the arthouse-hip crowd, some seem almost startled by the quality of what they’re hearing. “Your group had me from the first song,” a newly-minted fan, in line for a signed CD, proclaims. A young woman leans forward in her seat, round eyes full of longing. Along the bench-lined side of the room, twelve pairs of black boots and white Chucks unconsciously tap in unison to the opener, ‘I Shall Sail No More (No More Shall I Sail)’. An older man, intensely focused, nods his head in acknowledgement at the end of every song.
Evident on the albums, but even more visibly so in concert, is the rich skill of every artist on stage. Greenberg appears to play multiple instruments at once, his cornet soaring or suspended (‘Overpass L.A.’), his keys jazzed, articulate, or heartbreaking (‘Blue Hour’) by turns. Erik Tokle’s bass and haunting “atmospherics” not only anchor every song but, it turns out, often lead them in (e.g. ‘I Shall Sail No More,’ ‘True Places’). Bowing his guitar on tracks such as ‘Tahquitz’ and ‘El Pistolero’, Ali Vazin achieves evocative sounds not simply drawn from a Jimmy Page or Jónsi playbook, while Dave Pomeranz’s turns on acoustic guitar (e.g. ‘Depth of Field’) are particularly sparkling. Aaron Farinelli (who also handles the band’s minimal patter) displays mastery of the drums that is both aurally and visually riveting, especially on showcase pieces like ‘Holarctica’ and ‘Heart Space’.
The guest artists (who glide on and off the stage as required) are equally talented. Jonah Levine’s trombone is a treat, notably on ‘The Sondersong’, when audience attention increases along with the slow-grow music. Daniel Rotem effects the complex sax in ‘Tahquitz’ and ‘This Cat Has No Moral Compass’ to transcend jazz, and the audience is so quiet during his solo in ‘El Llanto en Llamas’ that cameras can be heard clicking all over the club. Cellist Artyom Manukyan’s bowed, plucked, and filtered parts consistently draws the audience to rapt listening, especially on ‘El Llanto en Llamas’, the finale of ‘The Sondersong,’ ‘Depth of Field’, and ‘Decades’ (his work on the last of which reminds my companion of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).
Some pieces work better live than on the albums. On the second song of the night, the horn duet on ‘True Places’ evokes smiles, nods of connection from the audience. It’s followed by ‘Asunder,’ Farinelli’s soft drums and Tokle’s “atmospherics” arcing over the silence of eighty people holding their breath. ‘Onsen’, a bit of a sleeper from the first album, emerges as a clear audience-pleaser here, Vazin’s guitar a high point. In ‘The Dawn Thief’ — which opens The Madrean but here is the second song in the second set — complex rhythms shine more in person, and the group adopts a slightly faster feel for the song. The sounds of traffic and mariachi can be heard from the horns. Pomeranz’s guitar here is also noteworthy. ‘Reservoirs’ glimmers with Vazin’s guitar solo, intense sounds from Manukyan’s cello, and Greenberg’s exquisite piano. All horns and percussion are distinct, with great clarity of detail, sound engineering and visual impact working in tandem to unroll the tapestry. The horn section, standing in front and blowing in unison, intensifies emotion on tracks like ‘Holarctica’ and ‘Overpass L.A.’
Billed as an album release concert for Sondersongs, but transpiring nearly five months after the actual release date, the concert has woven most of the tracks from the new album with many from The Madrean and a few from their first album, Whale Fall. Hearing songs out of order, especially from albums with clear conceptual arcs, can be disconcerting, but Whale Fall presents some songs in album-order pairs and builds bridges between others, interleaving intense pieces with quieter ones, creating a new and not displeasing fabric. Carefully choreographed visuals (worked in realtime by Travis Flournoy) blend live images of the band with old movies and colorful geometrics, layering over the group and the screen behind.
It’s difficult to balance an eight-piece group where the volumes range from drums and electric guitar to trombone and cello, but the space is acoustically well designed and the band is arranged with the softer instruments to the fore. Most of the time, the individual instruments can be picked out and everyone can be heard, but the trombone and cello are sometimes drowned and the sound occasionally muddied in the small space.
There are a few hitches. The stage monitors are imperfect and on ‘Tahquitz’, the first song after the break, Greenberg’s cornet is out of tune; deviation from perfect pitch occurs a few times during the show to both Greenberg and to Levine’s trombone. The lateness of the hour on a work night sends about a quarter of the audience home during the break (perhaps anticipating this, Whale Fall plays a longer first set than second). An elderly man who walked in an hour before the gig, lay down on a bench, and promptly fell asleep wakes up for the first half and appears attentive, even riveted. During the break, though, he falls asleep again. Throughout the second half of the show he is snoring softly, adding an unplanned textural element to the music. The audience is tolerant. All ages are here (a few parents-of-the-band are detected, but there are also simply silver-haired fans alongside twenty-somethings) and the mood is warm.
The final track, ‘Kodiak’, from the first album, emerges more vibrant, more colorful than on the record. Drums punctuate the horns. Heads still nod along through the final moment. At the close of the show, listeners file out reluctantly — as if dragging their feet could make the music last.
Setlist, courtesy Whale Fall:
I Shall Sail No More (No More Shall I Sail)
Depth of Field
El Llanto en Llamas
This Cat Has No Moral Compass
The Dawn Thief