By RAYMOND ROBLES
The Ruby Suns
The Painted Palms
Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013
Bottom of the Hill
Better than: A psychedelic kiwi.
Wednesday the 13th either imparts extreme acoustic luck to Bottom of the Hill, or the club's sound engineer deserves a pay raise. Where San Francisco duo Mark Zannad and Brandon Harrison's Seatraffic may have struck gold with their monitor levels, they also found fog. One might think that more fog would be undesirable, since the Pacific unceasingly powders this city with it, but Seatraffic disagreed.
So much fog billowed out of the opener's fog machine last night that would-be dancers stopped cold in their shuffles, as if transported into Stephen King's The Mist, and hopeful photographers such as myself captured only eerie will-o'-the-wisps in a haze.
Once acclimated to the peculiar fog musk (redolent of what I would imagine millennia-old Egyptian hairspray would smell like), Seatraffic did manage to ride the precisely-calibrated sinusoidal landscape of the venue to a better performance than their recordings. Maybe Zannad's somewhat ponderous vocals hit their mark when connected with the gestural components of their music-making; maybe literally losing one's self in a sea of fog and watching Seatraffic's ethereal silhouettes dancing unlocks some secrets of their music.
Painted Palms played a short set that highlighted the subverted-saccharine, highly textural palate their former tourmates Of Montreal have mastered. But Painted Palms' diverse talents, shown on the group's debut Canopy EP, include intricately woven sample-tapestries ("Water Hymn") as well as electronic dance ballads ("All Of Us"). Cousins Chris Prudhomme and Reese Donohue had friend Travis Cutright on drums to underscore the hip-shaking rollick of their energetic performance.
Donohue said that even he was surprised at "how heavy the kickdrums were" in some of their work, which prompted them to explore "some slower and more ambient experiments" not present in their set. With the help of adroit Cutright's kickdrums, smart equalization, and a cohesive dance set, Painted Palms made all the right choices.
Headliners the Ruby Suns also made all the right choices. Not by coincidence, their acoustic soundscape challenged the formidable sound quality of their openers. They achieved almost seamless transitions between songs with brisk communication to the sound engineer, all the while spinning out sparklingly improvised codas that distinguished their live experience from their records.
Frontman, vocalist, and notable percussionist Ryan McPhun made another savvy choice in employing the visual magic of friend Mike Lemmon, creator of the ingenious El Alef mobile phone application. El Alef, soon to be renamed "Tripstamatic" ("like 'Hipstamatic' but with 'trip' at the beginning," explained Lemmon), takes video input and creates a feedback loop that projects mesmerizing organic fractals of the original image. "It's like a distortion pedal for a video," Lemmon said. A dynamically-filtered visualization of a dynamically-filtered visualization of a dynamically...well, you get it...visualization of the stage illuminated The Ruby Suns and several geometric screens behind them.
McPhun's nuanced sense of rhythm beat the perfect counterpoint to Lemmon's dazzlingly transmuted projections (at one point, the program even created a fluorescent reproduction of the amorphous petri-dish pattern of McPhun's shirt). Lilts of primal East African percussion motifs in songs from their album Sea Lion found equal prominence with infectious isorhythms evocative of all the best hooks on their latest record, Christopher.
By their second song, McPhun's astoundingly good tone quality -- even when warbling in tenor territory of dubious worth for vocalists of lesser talent -- had elegantly-coiffed women twirling in the arms of a regiment of bearded boyfriends. "Drums are my favorite instrument; my first instrument," said McPhun, and though he never touched the drums onstage, his percussive ingenuity forged a set almost as thematically crystallized as the Painted Palms' previous dance menu.
Take-home assessments: 1) Snap up Bottom of the Hill's sound engineer and reap the sweet sonic rewards; and 2) if you think Seatraffic, Painted Palms, or The Ruby Suns sound good in your headphones, they will sound even better onstage.