Steve Gunn at Barboza
by Ada Fetters
Steve Gunn recently performed a show at Barboza. Gunn is from Brooklyn, and it is usually difficult for an east-coast-based indie musician to go west, but Gunn is a traveler: Seattle is practically next door compared to Mongolia, where he filmed the video for “Way Out Weather.”
Barboza is in the basement of another venue. There was a big furnace at the back of the room. When it kicked on to heat the building, I felt it thrumming through my seat.
The venue consists of a long, narrow room lined with plush booths. They were lit by candles on the tables and small lamps high on the walls, the effect creating more shadows than light. Mirrors on the concrete walls made the room look larger than it was, as if there were several more tables made visible only by their little candles swimming in darkness.
Peering upward, I saw that the ceiling and the octopus-arms of the heat ducts were painted gold. The overall effect resembled a speakeasy: an underground room with its utilitarian nature half-masked by low light and a coat of paint.
There were about as many people at the venue as could attend a good-sized house party.
Two bands were booked that night. Steve Gunn was the main attraction, and the opening act was called Nap Eyes. They said they were from “Middle-eastern Canada,” which is a roundabout way of implying Nova Scotia, though I am not sure why they’d be coy about it.
Their vocalist, Nigel Chapman, sang with his mouth mushed against the microphone. Even when he moved his head he rolled it around the mic. He sighed and mumbled the lyrics into the mic from the same proximity, so that the vocals sounded as if they lacked depth.
During the instrumental bits, the group relied on the bassist to keep the guitar and drums from going their own separate ways. It was as though someone with good background knowledge about the genre put all the tropes and stereotypes together in one place like a “Portlandia” skit.
Steve Gunn came out at 10:00 pm exactly, which is more punctuality than any musician I’ve ever gone to see. Usually 10:00 pm means 10:30 pm at the earliest.
The gentle chords of “Milly’s Garden” flowed through the speakers like clear water. Everyone in attendance instantly recognized it and gave a collective murmur of appreciation before growing quiet again.
Gunn chose to turn the chords of “Garden” into an intricate finger-picked intro, then shifted to an instrumental jam that sounded like something from the Grateful Dead.
I’ve heard Gunn’s voice described as a “lazy drawl” and “he sounds genuine because sings the lines without vocal tricks,” but that isn’t true at all. He sounds genuine because he knows how to sing with a sort of intimate urgency, good enough that he makes that sound effortless, and his vocals are subtle enough that it is easy to overlook just how difficult they are to do.
This was nowhere more apparent than in his rendition of “Ancient Jules.” When Gunn tilted his head back from the microphone to lilt the ends of the lines, the volume and distance gave the vocals a sense of depth.
Now and then, to give his band time to set up for a new song, Steve Gunn would tell little stories. He said that the first time he’d come out to Seattle was very different. He’d played an outdoor festival, one of many acts, and almost no one saw him. To make things even more surreal, an employee at the festival kept carting loads of ice across the set to dump them into a nearby trash can.
I’ve heard acoustic versions of these songs, the album versions, and now the electric versions of them. I’m impressed with the way that these songs aren’t merely played on different instruments, or translated to a version appropriate to electric or acoustic guitar. Rather, it’s like the songs are reinvented depending on the mood of the band, as if they were the original intent of the songwriter.
Of course there was an extended electric guitar solo in “Conditions Wild” Now it belongs there. I wish there were a recording of that concert the way Phish always records theirs, because these versions of the songs were so different.
An epic version of the instrumental “Trailways Wander” wrapped up the main set. The instruments played off of one another, tightly weaving around a repeating theme. As I said, the Outliners’ sound reminded me a little of the Grateful Dead, except more driven than the Dead were.
After wrapping up “Trailways,” the band went backstage, but the audience clapped and chanted until Steve Gunn came back out again.
When he took the stage he sounded rather surprised that we cared enough to want him back for another song. “After all, I hear there’s a cocktail party going on upstairs.”
Yeah, there was some sort of bartender competition going on upstairs at Neumos, but we had no intention of leaving the basement, and we let him know it.
Gunn played “Wildwood” as an encore. The song is named for Wildwood, New Jersey. He visited there shortly after Jersey was hit by a hurricane. He was so moved by the atmosphere of a down-and-out New Jersey theme-park town that he wrote a song about it.
The layered chords and repeating themes throughout the show gave a sense of waking up from a dream. In the space between sleeping and waking, you realize you’ve visited that same dream-setting many times. You wonder if a dreamscape that feels so vast and textured could possibly be a hallucination experienced only by you.
In this case the band created the dream, however, and there was a basement full of people along for the ride.
Copyright © 2017 by Ada Fetters