By Mark Sheperd Tillman
A slow, confident yet happily soaring opener introduces Owl & Penny to the stage and concludes with bright and piercing vocal work from the lead singer. Altogether the band's dreamy rock sound is both relaxing and engaging, feeling familiar without becoming overly comparable in a relatively crowded sub genre.
One of the more defining elements of Owl & Penny's composition is the exceptionally punchy and driving bass-and-tom work from the drummer. Evoking a simple tribal tone with few flourishes and minimal use of the symbols the beat provides a clear canvas for the lead vocals and piano to firmly hold the spotlight. This is epically demonstrated with a wild yelp, terminating the second track of their set. While the challenging vocal work provides an exceptional focal point for the listener it would undoubtedly prove a challenge to sing along. However, by the third song it's difficult to care with a rich bass hook as addicting as the minimalistic chorus.
Throughout Owl & Penny's set the impact of the bass heavy drumming significantly reduces the presence of the violinist, due largely to the layout of the venue. However, there are certainly a few moments for his artistry to shine on the fourth track. Even alongside the cacophonous marching beat that commands complete attention midway through the song. The violin receives some of its best moments here.
Overall my first experience getting to hear Owl & Penny was great. There are just enough moments that define their signature sound among their contemporaries while proudly upholding elements of the genre that make it great.
Goodnight, Texas was a complete surprise for me. Their whole set from start to finish was an absolute blast. With the bassist and drummer holding down their craft masterfully throughout, the lead duties were traded off from song to song between Pat Wolf and Avi Vinocur. The dynamic between these guys was infectious. Each and every harmony, instrument swap, and bombastic hook was executed with a jovial nonchalant swagger that perfectly mirrored the influences and origins of their sound. Classic instrumentation from country, rock and bluegrass were woven together into something nostalgic and welcoming.
Following the opener, Goodnight, Texas segued into a song about love and bank robbery, which are widely accepted as two of the best subjects for song writing. Go listen to "A Bank Robber's Nursery Rhyme". I'll wait. If that didn't bring a smile to your face then I'll just go ahead and assume that you hate kittens and puppies. Immediately following that delightful jaunt of a tune, we're taken down a much more somber road with "I'm Going to Work on Maggie's Farm Forever". If you missed the lyrical nod to Bob Dylan here, the harmonica keeps it all right on track.
By this point Wolf and Vinocur were in full swing. There was seemingly no end to the instrumental rotation between each song with these guys. Combining the subtle variations in composition from track to track provided a dynamic and playful wall of sound with some really sweet picking skills on the mandolin to top it off. At many points through the set their aesthetic belonged squarely to the Era of the civil war, a feeling solidified by the outset of Many Miles From Blacksburg. This divergence from their exceptionally positive tone overall was hauntingly stark here. The set ended with a truly rockstar bravado that had the whole audience loving Goodnight, Texas. Can't wait to have them back around.
On a night full of pleasant surprises, The Family Crest was everything I could have hoped for. If you've never heard them and have any love for folk, I can't recommend them enough. Upon first listen to Beneath The Brine I was convinced that the band must have originated from Ireland, or the UK at the very least. Though, to my surprise their Celtic-folk influences are rooted in San Francisco. But hey, if the bay area wants to keep supplying Arizona with shows as awesome as this, there certainly won't be any complaints here.
The stage presence of this band was one of the real highlights of the show, but can't be addressed without some background info. If you've been to the Valley Bar you know the stage is far from big. In fact it was impressive that the band even managed to fit all seven members on stage. Not to mention the piano, drumset, stand up bass, cello and a guest appearance from three members of Phoenix's very own Harrison Fjord. Even with all of that, the truly astounding element here was the trombone player. Seriously, I was certain through the whole show that someone was moments from a good knock in the face. His horn reached from the back of the stage to the audience and took up nearly half the stage width in a profile stance. And this guy wasn't just standing about casually; this was the hardest rocker there. The coordination from the whole band was mind-boggling with all of these pieces in place. The entire show felt like a delicately lucky series of near misses with so little available space, although, more likely a product of some careful rehearsing.
While this setting ensured that the experience was exciting, it was merely a single success among many. Having listened to the album beforehand, I was floored by one of the most powerful singing voices I've seen live in a long time from Liam McCormick, the fearless leader of The Family Crest. While the vocals on the album are certainly enjoyable, the live experience was a whole different animal. To do justice to each artist's performance on stage would be impossible as there is simply too much to take in. Suffice it to say that this is a must-see live experience and I couldn't recommend that ticket purchase you're considering enough.
Need more convincing? Go give their song "Howl" a spin.