By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
It was cold so we bundled up to keep warm, saw our breath float into darkness when we stepped outside for fresh air, really fresh air, scents of sea salt and beach wood. This was a year ago. We were in Bolinas, at a place called Smiley's Saloon. We city kids had driven up, booked rooms in B&Bs, driven slowly down dark roads alongside lakes and bays, looking for hand-painted signs, white letters on brown cardboard that said "Quiet Quiet Window Lights." The signs would tell us where to turn, because there were no street signs and landmarks were scarce. It was confusing, but we found the place, parked right in front of the saloon. I remember thinking, "Should we tie the Mazda to this hitching post?"
Smiley's was nearly empty when we arrived, save for a few scattered locals, patrons not accustomed to the flood of twentysomethings about to overtake the only watering hole in this tiny town. We stood around, ordered drinks, waited for things to get started. People trickled in. Joanna Newsom showed up, but her Lyon & Healy harp had been tossed about on the drive up and she was in no mood to talk; she went upstairs to fix it. The band Vetiver set up on the floor in a corner and started sometime around 9 p.m. Singer Andy Cabic purred and played and tapped his foot. His bandmate Devendra Banhart finger-picked his guitar, sang harmonies.
Newsom, having repaired and tuned her harp, went on next. About 50 of us had made the hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco to Smiley's, filling the joint to capacity. The place served beer in jelly jars. Newsom's strong, reedy voice seemed to pluck the strings itself, all pingy and ringy and wry. It must have caught the locals by surprise, but they warmed to it and yelled for more; today I'm told Smiley's has a copy of one of the harpist's early homemade CD-R's in its jukebox.
We were glowing when she finished, thrilled by the intimacy of it all. That's when the Brightblack Morning Light -- or Brightblack for short -- went on. Frontman Nathan Shineywater stood shirtless, wearing big silver sunglasses and his acoustic guitar, his long greasy hair and frisky mustache completing the picture of an Alabama castaway, which is what he is. So is his best friend, Rachael Hughes, who plays a Fender Rhodes bass-keyboard in the band. Drummer Noah Wilson met Shineywater in Humboldt six years ago, and they've been playing together off and on ever since.
That night at Smiley's the trio played a shimmering set. It put us to sleep, then soundtracked our flying dreams, then woke us up again an hour later, because it was time to celebrate. We bought booze from the bartender and took it to the parlor upstairs, stayed up all night chatting, improvising on a piano and a cello, eventually finding ourselves on a starlit beach splashing about, with the dim glow of the city visible across the bay, a million miles away.
Brightblack is the reason all of this happened. Shineywater and Hughes booked the bands, which were made up of their friends; booked Smiley's, their local pub; and got the word out, which wasn't hard to do, considering the lineup. It was one of those landmark events that no one could have predicted: In the year since Quiet Quiet Morning Light, Banhart and Newsom have released critically acclaimed records and gone on to achieve international success. Brightblack, on the other hand, has stayed pretty much the same, which is really just fine with Brightblack, which prefers to stick uncompromisingly to its bohemian ideals. If that means that sleeping under the stars comes before rock stardom, so be it.
"I need 16 bars of the biggest thing you got," says Jim Lamb, sound man for Café Du Nord, during Brightblack's sound check before its show last Wednesday night. Shineywater thinks about it for a second, confers with his bandmates, and the trio starts playing a buildup of sorts, with Shineywater strumming his acoustic, Hughes fingering the notes of her Rhodes, and Wilson tapping his small kit. The racket gets about as loud as a Lexus engine.
Brightblack makes the slowest, softest music I've ever heard a rock band play; the stuff makes codeine look like crank. At a show at Du Nord that Brightblack headlined last year, almost the entire room had cleared out by the time the group was halfway through its set, most people having shown up for the opener, Vetiver, and unable to make it through Brightblack's narcotic jams full of expansive songs that feel like the still air before an electrical storm. For reference, look to Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, Mazzy Star, Low, or, as the band itself does, My Bloody Valentine.
"We really got into My Bloody Valentine and Loveless," says Shineywater, settled into a plush chair in a corner of the venue alongside his bandmates. When Shineywater and his best friend speak, they do so in thick, beguiling Southern accents, and they refer to each other strictly as Nay-bob (for Nathan) and Ray-bob (for Rachael). "That record really has the same [consistent] feeling to it. That's been a big push: Pick up on an emotion and try to maintain it rather than hitting all these other sounds."