Think of Califone and, if you’ve heard of them, you’ll probably think of adensely harmonised experimental melange of makeshiftinstruments for which the Chicago-based quintetutilise anything from duct tape to silk and sandpaperto produce the atmospheric soundscapes of theirblues-infused nu-folk Americana. Tonight, they’restripped down to the bare essentials – just Tim Rutiliwith guitar and Ben Massarella alternating betweenviolin and banjo for an acoustic evening built aroundtheir current (sixth) album Root and Crowns.
This is the fourth and last in a week of tinyLondon gigs that comprise the entirety of their UKtour, sandwiched between a North American gigfestthat’s set to last four months. To see them in such atiny, intimate venue as the Windmill should be a realtreat, and it’s clear that many people feel the sameway as the venue fills up early, drawing a crowd ofconspicuous industry types to the honeypot of its tinystage.
Unfortunately, this is set to ruin the eveningrather than make it, as it’s too crowded, too hot andthe acoustics really can’t cope with a combination ofminiscule space, minimalist musicians and too manypeople talking too loudly too close to the stage.
On a good day, the Windmill can be the perfectsmall venue – provided there are no more than 20people in the crowd and they’re all actuallyinterested in listening to the band. Sadly, this isnot the case today. The acoustics are a mess -alternately drenched in feedback (not alwaysintentionally), or lost amongst the backgroundchatter. Plus, some numpty has decided to position avery large merchandising table right in the middle ofa floor area which only has comfortable arm room forfive small indie kids at the best of times.
Califone are cut from the same cloth as Smogand Will Oldham, The Sea and Cake,Calexico and the Silver Jews and attheir best they can out-bliss any of them. Tonightthey’re so laid back and chilled out that, in a goodway, it’s hard to stay awake throughout their set. Ina venue such as the Royal Festival Hall on a BeyondNashville night, or All Tomorrow’s Parties with somenice smoke wafting your way and an audience who wouldonly make a noise to clap politely, this would workvery, very well as they brush the silence with gentle,stripped-back versions of songs including The Eye YouLost in the Crusades. But in these surroundingsthey’re sadly too quiet and too gentle. It just getslost.
The blissful music and sparse vocals don’t carryover the background chatter, which is a terrible shamebecause, despite the awful set-up, it’s clear thatCalifone are very, very good. They play for well overan hour, ending with a flourish of feedback thatfights to be heard. Unfortunately that sums up thewhole evening. A waste of a wonderful opportunitywhich could have been saved by capping ticket salesand only letting people in if they promised theyactually wanted to listen to the band. Next time,maybe.