I'm not too keen on ringing in my ears after a concert. As someone who would like to work with audio as a career, as well as a hopeless music-listening junkie, I'm fairly adamant about preventing heavy decibels from reaching my eardrums. For these reasons, I prefer Donkey to smaller, tougher places like the Smiling Skull or The Union, where guitars jangle rather than roar. So I stepped into the coffee joint that evening hoping to achieve maximum comfort sitting in a padded chair and letting the sound waves gently flow into my head.
It did not go as I expected.
No, I walked out of that show wondering if my aural sense had aged a couple of decades. No joke. Not since the Aerosmith stadium concert I went to had I so sorely underestimated the power of determined players. And it was so unexpected! The openers were a group of clean cut, gentle acoustic players and then there was this whirlwind Columbus bunch who might as well have taken an air horn and unleashed its power into my poor un-earplugged cranial appendages.
Why, Donkey? Why must your safe, predictable mom-and-pop walls host such a violent 180° shift? Why must you so beautifully confound my expectations?
Seriously though, the show was really a fantastic contrast. Band lineups are generally geared toward a specific sound or audience, but I for one love it when this is not adhered to. Beginning with the light, fluffy, pleasant folk of the Frame Family Band, the show didn't lead into another folk group but into the crunchy, alternative sounds of Fresh Wreckage, which was one of the most colorful lineup choices I've ever seen.
The Frame Family Band crowded into their small circle of chairs onstage at 8:00, so close that they had to twist their arms to avoid hitting each other with their guitar and banjo necks. How cute. They clearly weren't going to be hopping around on chairs and shouting like The Ridges.
"We decided to be really cool and instead of printing out our lyrics and stuff, we decided to have a Mac up here," singer Castle Frame told the audience before the first song, perching a blue laptop with that ubiquitous Apple logo on a barstool in front of her. Oh, how I weep for the younger generation, who will never understand the vital importance of handwritten set lists and lyric.
The group kept things simple, usually using two guitars and a banjo to play their usually chord-spare, strum-strummy sort of music. If James Taylor had a band, the Frame Family Band would be a nice approximation of the "Fire and Rain" aesthetic. The vocals had a pretty, unadorned sound that recalled Taylor's everyman feel, and the band laid down the basic chords without worrying about flashiness or showmanship. They were so down-to-earth that their percussionist slapped the box upon which he sat.
In fact, the impression I kept getting from their performance was a charming type of simplicity, the kind that pioneers must have played in their covered wagon circles. That is, if the early Americans played Ween covers. In addition to their originals, they ran through "Chocolate Town" and "Mutilated Lips," softer offerings that fit well with their cozy feel.
They also went through a John Denver song that wasn't "Sunshine On My Shoulders." I'm a bit relieved now, as I thought I was the only person born after 1974 who still listened to John Denver.
Fresh Wreckage sauntered up next, geared up with pedals, a keyboard and a huge drum kit. They called themselves pop-punk, but they seriously more looked like they walked out of '90s MTV. Flannel shirts, backwards ball caps, the whole bit. Their keyboardist even had a shirt on that said "On Your Mark, Get Set, Go Away." How much more grunge can you get?
This image was bolstered by their inclusion of Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" in their set. Their quite charismatic singer Bobbi Townes might not have sang in quite as high of a register as Ms. Jagged Little Pill, but she made up for it by sounding like she was mad at hell at whatever poor fellow had the misfortune to make a mess when he went away. Add this to the soaring heroic guitar solos and extended beat-heavy ending and it went from a nice alt-pop song to a pounding alt-pop monster from a young and hungry touring band.
Their originals didn't slouch either. Their sort-of ballad "Forever" soared with the aid of the guitarist Brandon Chapman's ever-shifting tones and processors, and captured the same transcendent soft-to-hard feel of the Smashing Pumpkins' "Today." "Perfect One" utilized a pseudo-classical intro courtesy of the synthesizer's strings that showed that they weren't afraid to change their rebellious tone. "I'm Just Saying" had the should of an old Songbook standard in a modern rock skin.
Their wild card of the night was a cover of Katy Perry's "E.T." mashed together with "We Will Rock You." Townes belted like the original (without all the autotune) and like most band covers of Top 40 songs, they improved upon it by putting some meat on its bones. Props to them for pointing out the subtle rhythm rip-off between the two, as well.
So it was loud, it was soft, it was Seattle circa 1992, it was flower power-ish, and best of all, it didn't repeat itself one bit. Can more venues take a cue from Donkey and stop genre-booking? Please? I won't even mind if I have to protect my ears next time.
ACRN.com's Scene and Heard: Local Music Recap strives to comprehensively cover the happenings of Athens music scene. Each week our editors, writers, and photographers hit live shows, basement parties with sweet bands, bar mitzvahs with badass DJs, etc. around town and report back with the action on the scene. Note: If you want someone from ACRN.com to check out your event, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.