I first met Jackson Wilcox in September 2007, and we've rarely had a conversation in the three years since in which the subject of THE ALBUM didn't come up. Actually, at first it was just the album. Then it evolved into the album. And then, for the past year or so, it's become THE ALBUM, a seemingly mythical object with a wrap date seesawing between any day now and possibly never.
It feels more than a little surreal, then, to be driving Downtown tonight for a CD release show by Wilcox's band, A Crowd of Small Adventures. The Beauty Bar bill puts the capper on the four-day Neon Reverb festival, with The Walkmen set to close it all out. But really, for those of us who've followed along with Wilcox's long adventure, this night is more about the band up first on the patio stage than the one on last.
I'm fairly confident THE ALBUM truly exists at this point, since I'm listening to it on my way over. Producer/bassist Ronald Corso gave me a copy Friday night at the Aruba, and I half-expected to wake up to "The Power of Love" on the clock-radio as it hit my hands. But the space-time continuum appears to have remained intact, leading me to believe I'll actually find Crowd, a sizable crowd and a box of discs when I arrive at the Fremont East hotspot.
Portland band Gratitilium is getting to work reinvigorating an exhausted but loyal legion of Neon Reverb weekend wanderers inside the Beauty Bar. The quartet's uplifting gypsy-rock sounds a little like A Crowd of Small Adventures, which reminds me: time to check out back.
And there they are — Wilcox, Corso, drummer Mike Weller and violinist Megan Wingerter, seated along the edge of the stage and looking ... pretty much the same as always. Okay, so THE ALBUM has not bestowed magical powers upon its creators. At least, nothing noticeable.
Wilcox describes his mood as "excited." Excited to be done with the album. Excited to be playing with The Walkmen. And excited over new material he's been writing. Wait, ALBUM NO. 2 is already in the works?! I'll believe it when I see it.
A little after 9, the quartet gets started, with one significant new wrinkle — it's now a quintet. Sean Villaros, who plays in Weller's Hungry Cloud, stands at stage left, alternating between guitar and keys. Though he's visibly nervous playing his first gig on such a momentous occasion, the new member adds some deft touches to the music, such as a keyboard countermelody in "See Her," previously unheard through the band's many previous live appearances.
ACOSA plays eight of the nine songs on THE ALBUM, which actually has a name, by the way: A Decade in X-Rays (A Decade in the Making is more like it, yuck, yuck). It's a fun set befitting the celebratory circumstances, aided by a near-pristine sound mix and an appreciative audience. "We're selling our new album tonight over there," Wilcox announces midway through, then belittles his grand accomplishment a bit, "But whatever, it doesn't mean anything."
As a line forms at the merch counter, tonight's second local band, The Skooners, sets up. This time slot, between a revved-up Crowd of Small Adventures and the imposing Walkmen, would surely intimidate many, but Blair Dewane is about as fearless a frontman as you'll find on the Vegas scene — especially when he's had an open bar at his disposal for part of the night. And so, The Skooners are their typically lively selves.
Third up outside: Nashville's JEFF the Brotherhood. The guitar-and-drums brother duo plays a forceful brand of garage rock that can feel punky, bluesy or both at any given moment. The high-energy set ends with singer/guitarist Jake Orrall handing his instrument over to two guys in the crowd, who continue pawing at the strings as Jamin Orrall finishes the song on drums. I've been to a lot of shows in my life, and don't remember seeing anyone do that before.
And then, at the exact stroke of midnight, it's time for The Walkmen, the biggest band ever to play this little local festival that could. Despite going on without benefit of a traditional soundcheck, the East Coast five-piece sounds utterly professional in every sense, from Hamilton Leithauser's howling vocals to Paul Maroon's relaxed guitar parts to Peter Bauer's sinister organ work. Unsurprisingly, propulsive cut "The Rat," which checked in at No. 20 on Pitchfork's Top Tracks of the 2000s list last year, goes over biggest. But the packed patio responds with enthusiasm to each and every tune — the ones off older releases ("In the New Year," "We've Been Had," "All Hands and the Cook") and the ones off brand new record Lisbon ("Angela Surf City," "Woe Is Me," "Victory") — comprising the hour-long concluding set.
In a way, it's strange seeing The Walkmen, a band that regularly fills venues the size of the House of Blues, back-alley at Beauty Bar. But then, given the quality of music from both local and visiting acts at this week's fifth edition of Neon Reverb, ending with anything less would feel completely incongruous. Walkmen number "Juveniles" ends with Leithauser repeating, "You're one of us or one of them." If you weren't one of us Neon Reverbers this weekend, you really missed out.
A Crowd of Small Adventures' setlist
— "Ancient Giants"
— "See Her"
— "More and More"
— "Bang Bang"
— "Death of an Idol"
— "Bone City"
— "Fast Travel"
The Walkmen's setlist
— "Dónde Está la Playa"
— "Angela Surf City"
— "In the New Year"
— "Woe Is Me"
— "Canadian Girl"
— "Postcards From Tiny Islands"
— "I Lost You"
— "The Rat"
— "On the Water"
— "We've Been Had"
— "All Hands and the Cook"