This Little Underground

While it's certainly no excuse not to attend the fest and support its most worthy cause of migrant farm worker aid, it is a pretty blessed thing that the annual Harvest of Hope Fest in St. Augustine has already become a big enough magnet event that it draws so many heavyweight national and international acts into our region, resulting in an impressive flood of concerts all over the area. 

Again, to be clear, HOH is a well-orchestrated event that's stocked with noteworthy talent and very much worth your while. But what multiplies its value and impact exponentially is the ripple effect it generates in terms of shows for the surrounding cities. And the great windfall in Orlando this week was abundant enough to triple-stack my dance card just last Saturday.

Some of the spillover talent I caught in town included the pleasant but standard indie-pop preciousness of New York's Freelance Whales (March 13, Will's Pub) and Oakland's Rogue Wave (March 13, the Social), who are looking and sounding more and more like they could be on the way to becoming the next Death Cab

I also saw Chicago's Fruit Bats (March 12, the Social), whose innocuous melodies are nice enough but offer nothing that really grips the soul. Far more incisive was Portland, Ore. opener Blue Giant, a complete band that plays country rock with nuance, care and love. Their panoramic twang pairs great traditionalism with atmospheric rock modernity and amounts to a rich, relevant vision of ;country music.

Equally outstanding was the stiff-spined psychedelia of Brooklyn's Bear in Heaven (March 13, Will's Pub). Their highly produced sound was replicated live with astounding fidelity and finesse, especially Jon Philpot's remarkable voice. They frame their celestial float with rigidity and discipline. Any band that understands the value of balance and structure so well deserves serious credit.

One act with a musical vision that's both articulate and unique is Northern California's Port O'Brien (March 11, the Social). Their seafaring folk features plenty of interesting turns but their sharp melodic intellect always steers the ship. They're the perfect union of personality and precision, embodying an intriguing sense of otherness without compromising any of the direct soul satisfaction that folk music inherently entails. Far more salient than most of their higher profile contemporaries, this band should've blown up after their 2008 debut album, All We Could Do Was Sing, came out. But whether or not they ever get as big as they deserve to, they're still at the head of the new folk class. If this is where the genre is headed, we're in very good shape.

And hearing the gusto with which frontman Van Pierszalowski sings live proves the star quality of his voice. Occupying prime real estate between the rusticity of Neil Young and the otherworldliness of Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell, his is one of the most distinctive voices today.


The beat


But beyond HOH-related haps, there was some other exciting live action, too, making this week an all-around blockbuster. Local experimental band SSLOT (March 9, ;Bar-BQ-Bar) was an uncontained rhythmic orgy with three bloodthirsty drummers and a vocalist. When you compare them to the refined intensity of the city's most notable rhythm project, Basements of Florida, this band is definitely the wild child with a full-bore attack that's part tribal, all animal. And though the performance spent much of the time on the verge of flying off the tracks, what they lacked in organization they made up for in exhilarating spontaneity. If Basements is the evolved, upright concept of rhythm music, these guys are the unpredictable apes. And I fucking looove apes.

Equally intense and unconventional was North Carolina's U.S. Christmas (March 13, Back Booth), a psych-metal group that comes at you with two guitars, two drum kits, a violin and one strip-mining bass that moves earth like industrial machinery. Though they have a weirdness that's channeled partly from their Appalachian surroundings, and the rest simply from another dimension, the force of their delivery makes their advancement fall somewhere between a stampede and a detonation. With even their moody songs hanging heavy with bleakness, their live performance was as atmospheric and mysterious as it was punishing, and U.S. Christmas is one of the most exceptional metal bands I've seen in a very long time.

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