Friday, June 4, 2010

The Mynabirds @ Black Cat Backstage

Laura Burhenn
On Wednesday night I saw The Mynabirds at The Black Cat Backstage sweat through a great set of songs led by the impressive voice of Laura Burhenn. Burhenn used to be half of famed DC band Georgie James, but she left DC, moved to Nebraska and wrote a new album, "What We Lost In the Fire We Gained in the Flood," now out on Saddle Creek Records. If I had to slot The Mynabirds into a current musical category I'd put them in with bands such as The Duchess and the Duke, She and Him or even Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. These are all bands who are making music that sounds like it was made in the seventies, but not in the traditional "seventies" sense of generic classic rock riffs or disco (there's plenty of bands already forcing us to listen to that, and yes I'm talking to you Kings of Leon). Instead, they're drawing inspiration from people who were big at the time, but that have faded somewhat from memory. Burhenn owes much of her style, and some of her vocalizations to Dusty Springfield, but there's also a very healthy dose of Neil Young and other loudish folkies with some Nancy Sinatra (especially the duets with Lee Greenwood) thrown in for good measure. Also mixed up in there are some of the classic female Motown and R&B artists as well.

Not Laura Burhenn
Mynabirds songs sound familiar without being derivative. It's a fine line to walk but Burhenn and company do it well both on the album, and in the live show. Their songs have a big, nearly Southern Gothic, feel that is nearly hypnotizingly melodic. Burhenn's voice is incredibly strong, and she can hold a note or a sweetly pained wail as good as any of her influences. Laura played the keyboard, and was joined in the vocals by harmonizers Susan Sanchez and Pearl Boyd who occasionally busted out the tambourine (obviously) and a kazoo (less obviously). Ben Brodin played a great lead guitar and had some interesting riffs that I didn't remember being on the album. The backbone of the band was Dan McCarthy an awesomely mustachioed bass player, and John Kotchian hidden behind the singers on drums.

The opening act, Black Telephone, was less tight but they did a pretty good job considering this was their second show ever and first in a serious venue. A DC band with great potential, Black Telephone is Holly Tegeler on bass and most of the vocals, Tom Collier sang and played a drum machine (seriously, he played it like a bongo and hit different buttons for different sounds--this worked surprisingly well) and Rory Carroll was on guitar. They had a poppy sound that was somewhat sparse, but it worked and is somewhere in the neighborhood of Belle and Sebastian and a really happy Eliot Smith.

The Mynabirds did a great job of recreating the depth of the recorded songs in a live setting. They have a near Wall-Of-Sound style, and the band was very tight. Everyone sounded like they had been together for years, which is amazing considering that none of the touring band appears on the album. Burhenn and her producer Richard Swift seem to have done nearly everything themselves on the album, and the ability of these musicians to present this material as if it was their own was really impressive.

If I have any reservations about the group it's the fear that their strengths could eventually turn into a weakness. Some of their songs sound very similar, especially the slower songs for the first few bars. When they started one towards the end of the set I thought they had made a mistake and were going to play the title-track twice. The slow songs tends to start with Burhenn's slow tinkling keyboard and her strong vibrato voice slowly joining in. What saves their songs from being repetitive is the break that comes, almost without fail, about 45 seconds in. It might be an interesting bit of feedbacky guitar, or maybe some loud drums or a surprisingly funky bass line. These musical flourishes make the songs more interesting and instead of getting boring the songs keep you hooked. However, it's possible they'll end up falling into the trap of making the same songs over and over again. And it makes sense, they have a style and they do it well so why change it up--the problem is that won't work in the long run, just ask Nancy and Dusty who fell into the same trap.

They put on a great show and are clearly a professional group. This was definitely one of the hottest shows I've been to. I mean temperature wise--seriously Black Cat open a door or something it was terrible in there. In between each song the whole band would desperately try to cool themselves off by fanning themselves or lifting their hair off their shoulders--it didn't work and every time a song ended they looked like they were suffering. But once the next song started they were back in the game and the heat didn't impact their performance at all.

The Mynabirds just started this tour, and are going to be all over the place for the next two months. They're opening for Josh Ritter in the South, and are playing a few festivals, but many of their upcoming shows are at small places for basically zero money. I don't know what The Neurolux in Boise, Idaho is, but it must be a pretty cool place if you can see this band there for five dollars. They're on the road until August 1, and you owe it to yourself to catch them while they're still playing tiny venues, next time they come through town they're going to be bringing their big sound to bigger places.

Upcoming Mynabirds shows.

Here's an interesting road-journal that The Mynabirds are keeping.

And here's a great interview with Laura Burhenn from Paste Magazine.

Here's Black Telephone's website.

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