original. acoustic. music.

Review: San Fran Acousic Session

The first Acoustic Session at The San Francisco Bath House for 2015 was successful if a little under-attended. We played between The Lucid Effect and Gram Antler, two solo acts with unique and accomplished styles.
The San Fran is a rather mercurial venue; like many of the buildings along Cuba Street that have been yellow-stickered for earthquake strengthening The San Fran’s fate was held in a delicate balance while the extent of repairs was determined. The venue closed for a short time while the interior was given a much needed upgrade, but soon re-opened and played host to several acts in the recent Comedy Festival along with the usual eclectic mix of musicians. It is a medium-sized oblong room with a high ceiling, a raised stage at one end, a bar along the far wall and windows at the other end opening into a balcony over Cuba Street. It is a room that can accommodate huge numbers standing or a scattering of small tables for a more intimate club audience. The Gracious Deviants have trodden the boards at the San Fran on a number of occasions over the years, so we were overjoyed to hear that the Acoustic Sessions (formerly the regular Acoustic Lounge) were starting up again.

The winter in Wellington has been brutal this year, not only keeping audiences tucked up in their living rooms at home rather than out in town but also knocking out a few performers with a few virulent strains of flu; the bill for the evening was meant to be four acts, but one had to cancel at the last minute as one of its members was struck down with the lurgy. As is often the case at this time of year, the performers almost outnumbered the audience, but those that did attend were treated to a highly entertaining night of original acoustic music.

The night was hosted by Pete Baillie, a man who is almost solely responsible for the emergence of The Gracious Deviants in the Wellington scene. Were it not for his support we would most likely still just be playing Open Mic nights. Pete is currently hard at work recording his first album with local producer Mr. Winter, an album that will collect the best of his enormous legacy of original songs.

First up was Declan Ramsay, The Lucid Effect. Declan played solo on an Ovation electric/acoustic attached to a looper pedal, building his rhythm tracks in the opening bars of each song, and bringing the resulting complex guitar and vocal lines in and out with a well-practiced stomp on the footswitch. For many players this kind of setup can lead to one of two outcomes: a complex wall of sound lacking in dynamics, or a rhythmic backing constrained to a standard repetitive two or four-bar loop. Not so in the case of the Lucid Effect - Declan used the loops with enough light and shade to keep each song interesting, and managed to avoid the trap of over-complication by carefully crafting complementary rhythms and harmonies on guitar and voice, relying on his own live playing as the centre point of each performance. With one or two nods to Ed Sheeran, The Lucid Effect’s sound was modern, fresh, and highly accomplished, the rhythmic elements varied and interesting behind a collection of nicely-crafted songs. The Lucid Effect have a tour and an EP coming out this year and are definitely worth a look.

The Gracious Deviants played next. I had been bed-ridden for four days with my own wondrous strain of the flu, and was not quite firing on all cylinders; we were not quite The Gracious Deviants 2.0, more like The Gracious Deviants 1.75. We played seven songs: Thought of You, Still Got a Hold On You, Song to Remember, Some Day (ambitious, as it was my turn to sing lead), Can’t Help Loving You, Losing My Nerve, and Leave a Light On. Darrel and Emma were in good voice, and I struggled, but managed to keep up. This was the first of three gigs this month after a long hiatus, and here’s hoping that the two remaining gigs will build on what was under the circumstances still a fairly solid performance.

The final performance of the evening came from Gram Antler, one of the members of highly successful local band Eb & Sparrow. A solo performance on semi-acoustic guitar, the connections between Gram and the Eb & Sparrow sound were easy to spot: the set consisted of slow to mid-tempo ballads in a laid-back alt-country/americana style with a little New York sophistication in the mix. Gram’s languid, soulful vocals and melancholic themes tucked up the audience like a warm blanket, or a generous measure of the finest whiskey on a cold night. For me, the vocals shone brightest when Gram left his baritone comfort zone and pushed into tenor/falsetto territory. The guitar playing was delicate and expert, the tremolo tone warm and furry like a contented housecat beside a crackling fire.

The night was a success despite the poor attendance. With any luck the improving weather may bring a few more punters to later shows. The Acoustic Sessions are an essential part of the Wellington music scene, they bridge the gap between the folk and rock set, two normally mutually exclusive crowds. If the San Fran can continue to host these nights the musical landscape in Wellington will be all the richer for it.

Thanks again to Ziggy from the San Fran, and Pete Baillie for his MC skills, and to all performers and audience members who braved the cold Wednesday evening in the pursuit of a great night’s musical entertainment.