March 6th, 2011
I was in Ballard Friday night to see Cobirds Unite, a band featuring Rusty Willoughby and Rachel Flotard. Rachel had been kind enough to get me on the list via some last minute (meaning 6:00 P.M. night of the show) Facebook messages and texts sent from vans already gig bound. I appreciated the effort and quick response on her part given the time so I rushed to the Tractor, got there at 6:45, pulled on the door handle. It was locked. There was evidence of a sound check happening within but unable to enter I went down the street for a silent pow wow with a pint or two at King’s Hardware in order to gather myself before the show.
I booted my laptop and looked at the Cobirds Unite Facebook page which lists the band’s sound as Folk Noir. I thought it an interesting description. It piqued the curiosity. Being online, I looked for streams or downloads of Cobirds’ music but could really only find the Amazon download page with its short 30 second samples. I opted not to listen. Those samples are never great quality, and they offer no context into the song. It’s difficult to review a show without having heard the band because one has to take notes, try to jot down phrases in songs, notice and remember variations in performance and instrumentation all while trying to pay attention to the songs themselves which are completely new. And yet, if the band is good, it’s a joy. I’d have a better memory of the evening than others present who were seeing and hearing the band for the first time because the act of writing makes it so, implants not just experience but detail into the brain. And anyway, live is always better to experience new music.
I got back to the Tractor in time to see the two openers, Jason Dobson and Shelby Earl, and they were good. Between the book, the blog, and all the other demands of the written word, there may not be time, but I will try to squeeze in a review of Ms. Earl’s band soon as they did some interesting things. When Cobirds Unite went on, the place wasn’t full but nearly so, and those in attendance were clearly there to see them. In addition to Willoughby and Flotard, the band was rounded out by Barb Hunter on cello, Barrett Martin on upright bass, Johnny Sangster on keys, and joining the band all the way from Denmark was Maggie Bjorklund on pedal steel. The first couple songs were mellow, and yes folk, but there was something more in the feel of it that was indeed noir. The pedal steel faded in and out in a way that reminded me of David Gilmour on “Pillow of Winds”. The music had just a hint of the psychedelic and a lot more groove than any folk stuff I’ve heard. I was especially drawn in by the third song, “You Could Be Wrong”.
Grooving without drums is a cool feat. The plucked notes on the cello and bass held up an admirable rhythm and the pedal steel continued its thing with the vocals over top, “Waited so long for the cavalry that might have come but we fell asleep … You could be wrong … ohhhhhh ohhhhh…” It was very cool, even a little haunting. The only disappointment was it’s length which was only about two minutes. Cobirds had many short songs. Get in, get out. Nothing was overstated or overplayed, but still there was just enough even with such brevity for the brain to latch hold of something, for melodies to sink in, for the feel of it to stick.
Flotard acknowledged the shortness in between songs, “We’re just a tiny little band that you can put in your pocket.” The crowd laughed. Flotard opened her pocket, “Get in there Rusty.” More laughs. She’s a master at interacting with the crowd, taking a sizable audience and drawing them into intimate moments. During the set, she bantered back and forth with Willoughby who kept up with one idea. “I need a beer,” he’d say. Flotard would respond, “but you’re working Rusty.” The songs continued, many with an air of melancholy that drew one in. The blend of their vocals was like a hushed conversation that made one want to lean in and listen, that felt like a breathy whisper in the ear. The banter continued. “You’re just like a Gary Larson cartoon, Rusty.” Laughter. “I just want a beer.” More laughter.
I noticed a stunningly beautiful Asian woman up front. She often sang along, grooved when the music grooved. I took my notes and watched the band, watched the beauty. I caught her a couple times looking in my direction, probably not at me in particular, but then such soothing, lush music will make one believe in the possibility that accidental eye contact might have meaning. But I was working, and unlike Rusty, having a pint or three so I stayed where I was. The music and show ended with no disappointment from the crowd. People felt satisfied, relaxed, ready for whatever else the night held. I hung by the stage to get a set list from Rachel.
“Did you like the show?” she asked.
She moved on in her circles, and I glanced around for the Asian beauty, but she was gone. Oh, well. I had my notes, and right there during song twelve was a scribbling, “young beautiful Asian woman up front.” I had thus the memory of the music, the woman, the evening.
All photos by Niffer Calderwood (Many thanks!)
Cobirds Unite has no upcoming gigs that I’m aware of but their Facebook page does have streaming samples (was blind to that Friday night) and links to various places to purchase CD or MP3 can be found on the band’s website.