Think of Califone and, if you’ve heard of them, you’ll probably think of a densely harmonised experimental melange of makeshift instruments for which the Chicago-based quintet utilise anything from duct tape to silk and sandpaper to produce the atmospheric soundscapes of their blues-infused nu-folk Americana. Tonight, they’re stripped down to the bare essentials – just Tim Rutiliwith guitar and Ben Massarella alternating between violin and banjo for an acoustic evening built around their current (sixth) album Root and Crowns.
This is the fourth and last in a week of tiny London gigs that comprise the entirety of their UK tour, sandwiched between a North American gig fest that’s set to last four months. To see them in such a tiny, intimate venue as the Windmill should be a real treat, and it’s clear that many people feel the same way as the venue fills up early, drawing a crowd of conspicuous industry types to the honeypot of its tiny stage.
Unfortunately, this is set to ruin the evening rather than make it, as it’s too crowded, too hot and the acoustics really can’t cope with a combination of miniscule space, minimalist musicians and too many people talking too loudly too close to the stage.
On a good day, the Windmill can be the perfect small venue – provided there are no more than 20 people in the crowd and they’re all actually interested in listening to the band. Sadly, this is not the case today. The acoustics are a mess – alternately drenched in feedback (not always intentionally), or lost amongst the background chatter. Plus, some numpty has decided to position avery large merchandising table right in the middle of a floor area which only has comfortable arm room for five small indie kids at the best of times.
Califone are cut from the same cloth as Smog and Will Oldham, The Sea And Cake, Calexico and the Silver Jews and at their best they can out-bliss any of them. Tonight they’re so laid back and chilled out that, in a good way, it’s hard to stay awake throughout their set. In a venue such as the Royal Festival Hall on a Beyond Nashville night, or at ATP with some nice smoke wafting your way and an audience who would only make a noise to clap politely, this would work very, very well as they brush the silence with gentle, stripped-back versions of songs including The Eye You Lost In The Crusades. But in these surroundings they’re sadly too quiet and too gentle. It just gets lost.
The blissful music and sparse vocals don’t carry over the background chatter, which is a terrible shame because, despite the awful set-up, it’s clear that Califone are very, very good. They play for well over an hour, ending with a flourish of feedback that fights to be heard. Unfortunately that sums up the whole evening. A waste of a wonderful opportunity which could have been saved by capping ticket sales and only letting people in if they promised they actually wanted to listen to the band. Next time, maybe.