Sunday, June 28, 2015

California Nights: Best Coast Come Home

There is nothing quite like a hometown, tour-ending show. And there is nothing quite like Best Coast.

In the studio, they are essentially Bethany Cosentino (who does all of the songwriting) and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno. However, Bruno can hardly play guitar, bass, and drums simultaneously onstage, so they tour with an augmented lineup—sort of like the Genesis of their own one-band genre.

Like many successes, that genre is a synthesis: of surf music, girl groups, the American Graffiti soundtrack (not limited to its surf music and girl groups), and whatever is salvageable from post-Eighties “alternative” music.

The touring lineup pulled into The Wiltern in Los Angeles last night to end their latest tour, one in support of their new album California Nights (Harvest). The now-seatless Wiltern was overflowing with a literally standing-room-only crowd. The crowd’s enthusiasm was obviously reciprocal and ensured the tour closer was almost everything a hometown tour closer should be. The multi-generational audience was indicative of the band’s influences and quality.

Cosentino, a Glendale, Los Angeles County native, spent a miserable freshman year at a Brooklyn college several years ago. Suffering from her first winter weather season and seasonal affective disorder, she dropped out and returned to her meteorologically comfortable home. She wrote a series of open love letters to her home state and teamed with Bruno, a veteran of the Los Angeles “indie” music scene. (You may notice that she shares her initials with those of her band name.) The fiercely independent songwriter rejected major label deals, and the two have released three LPs and several singles/EPs. (The new album was offered as a package deal in digital download form with the purchase of a concert ticket, in harmony with the theme of this weblog, but this band sounds most gloriously crisp and organic on vinyl, on which format all of the releases are also available.)

Cosentino’s songs are simple and can be repetitive musically and lyrically (she essentially writes two kinds of songs—open love letters to the once-Golden State, still golden in her mind, and love letters of sorts about less-than-entirely-functional human relationships). On stage, they could benefit from a little more spontaneity and variety (something else they share with Genesis despite their decidedly non-prog, “indie” roots). Leaving aside those caveats, they are required listening (and viewing) in a moribund culture of baby boomer nostalgia shows and American glorified karaoke idol/America’s Got Ballast shlock simulacra.

Bully opened. Their frontwoman’s voice (when it wasn’t screaming) sounded like a raspier, flatter version of Sophie B. Hawkins’s, which was pleasant enough (and by far the highlight of their performance). In the interest of space (and the “if you have nothing [else] nice to say” cliché), I won’t opine further (except to note that their interminable thirty-one minute set felt like an hour and thirty-one minutes).

At 10:16 PM PDT, after a heterogeneous selection of pre-show music from girl groups to metal, the houselights were lowered again on a stage that was backed by a wide projection screen over the drum riser. A video show began while a speed metal song played in the background and the five players took the stage. The blurred, out-of-focus images of palm trees, waves, and other local images continued throughout the tight and tightly-executed eighty-minute set. Perhaps they brought necessary subtle visual augmentation during gigs away from the “best coast”. They seemed superfluous though not distracting on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue.

The set commenced with the title track from 2012’s The Only Place (Mexican Summer), and the paean to the left coast works well as an opener on record and stage. I think new member Joe Bautista played a few lead licks on this one, but he played competent, supportive rhythm guitar (and occasional keyboards) for the rest of the set. (According to Wikipedia, the touring lineup is Cosentino, Bruno, Bautista, and the now-veteran rhythm section of bassist/background vocalist Brett Mielke and drummer Brady Miller. If so, I am confused by the “CC” on Miller’s bass drum head. If any of this information is inaccurate, blame Wikipedia—and the paucity of information about the touring lineup on the band’s official website and Facebook pages.) The five professionally played a lineup of songs similar to the other shows on the tour with a cohesive integration and competent professionalism lacking in so many artists these dark days, especially among bands of their provenance and sensibilities. This band has matured and strengthened since their last appearance at the Wiltern three years ago. Cosentino (self-described as awkward in the past) is considerably more socially deft and confident now, and her voice, which used to falter and frequently fall flat, consistently soars now. Billy Joel once referred to the concert stage as a crucible, and the results of these five’s determined art substantiate his idea. Dave Marsh once opined that those who make the best records don’t always (or even often) make the best shows. Although he had a point, Best Coast (touring edition) is a reminder that there are exceptions (or partial exceptions).

It is impossible to succinctly describe a Best Coast live performance; one really has to be there. Cosentino frequently strums rhythm guitar, but many of the highlights of the show occurred when she put it down and concentrated on her vocals. The new album’s title track was one of them—it’s a twist on the band’s local pride tinged with ennui. Bautista’s rarely-used keyboard was effective on it. Cosentino picked up a tambourine for another highlight, “Dreaming My Life Away”, which departed from the studio recording (from The Only Place) in subtle and unsubtle ways in which many of the other songs did not. The bouncy “When I’m With You”, which preceded it, provided an instructive example of what Frank Zappa called contrast and relief in a stage setting, something this band (at least instinctively) understands. Cosentino picked up her Fender Stratocaster for “Feeling OK”, the opening track of California Nights and one of the reflective album’s more sanguine songs. Bruno never takes a solo per se, but his performance was essentially one long basic but effective Sixties-style guitar solo of reverb-drenched lead lines. (Unfortunately, he occasionally devolves into anti-musical modernist noise, but it’s rare enough that it doesn’t significantly detract from the live show’s value.)

The main set closed (as usual recently) with “When Will I Change” (which is more congruent with the darker tone of the new album and the darker side of the once-Golden State). The band left the stage without a goodbye (though the song of that name was played much earlier in the set), and returned to deliver the typical two-song encore. The first was apparently Oasis’s “The Hindu Times”. Prefacing the band’s breakthrough single (still their best-known song), “Boyfriend”, Cosentino couldn’t avoid praising Friday’s Supreme Court decision for what she noted was the second consecutive evening. “Boyfriend” is a wonderful song, but it works slightly better in the studio and is an anti-climatic regular finale. It was even more anti-climatic in the context of last night. Ironically, “Boyfriend” has a drum introduction that sounds similar to Max Weinberg’s opening fusillade in Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands”. Springsteen, who uniquely spices each set from coast to coast and beyond, still has more to teach them.  “Boyfriend” (and the show) ended with a minute or two of Bruno and Bautista, by then alone on stage, making modernist noise and feedback to no discernible good end. It was an incongruous, anti-music end to an otherwise stellar, melodious evening.

  This band still has a few weaknesses, but the band keeps getting better. And they were unusually mellifluous and instrumentally tight to begin with. Best Coast is a welcome antidote to much of the malaise and schlock of a culture in serious trouble of entropic disintegration. Rock is a dying art form, for better or for worse, and live music is not far behind (for worse). That’s easy to forget when listening to Best Coast. You should see them.

Best Coast
The Wiltern
Los Angeles
Saturday, June 27, 2015
Spring/Summer 2015 Tour (for California Nights)
Support: Bully

The Only Place
Heaven Sent
Fine Without You
Do You Love Me Like You Used To
Crazy for You
No One Like You
So Unaware
California Nights
When I'm With You
I Don't Know How
Dreaming My Life Away
Fade Away
Fading Fast
In My Eyes
Feeling Ok
Our Deal
When Will I Change

The Hindu Times

The Wiltern stage before the show. Those at the front must have been able to read the setlist hanging from the keyboard, spoiling any surprises.

The live band.

A provocatively-dressed Cosentino (who commented that she would never wear that anywhere but her hometown) singing "Dreaming My Life Away".

Thanks to the two congenial young ladies who graciously allowed me to photograph this outside after the show.