Sometimes it's fun to run around town to different venues for Neon Reverb; other times, it's nice just to stay in one place. I'd planned on doing the latter tonight, with a stacked 10-band bill scheduled for the Aruba Hotel. But after seeing the condition of the room housing the larger stage early this morning, I wasn't sure that would actually be possible.
Pulling into the parking lot around 8 p.m., I'm immediately aware of a transformation. Gone is the mountain of palm fronds and 2x4s piled outside the backstage door just 18 hours earlier. Inside, the Aruba Showroom feels like a venue reborn by showtime: New lighting installations hang from the ceiling, unsightly scaffolding has been removed and the overwhelming, nauseating smell of paint has (mostly) dissipated. Looking frazzled but satisfied, Neon Reverb co-organizer James Woodbridge tells me he's been working on the room since 10 a.m., then heads home for a shower and a new set of clothes.
Brian Garth and Tom Martin, aka Black Camaricans, a stripped-down version of local faves Black Camaro, are finishing up in the Thunderbird Lounge. After Thursday's slew of late-startedness, it's good to see this one's already underway. Much as everyone loves final band Twin Brother, who's really gonna stick around if they go on after 3?
Up next: San Diego's Jamuel Saxon, an electro drum-and-keys duo with a cool name and a somewhat bland live presentation. Singer Keith Milgaten does little to engage the mostly ambivalent gathering, apart from asking who has seen Piranha 3D. "Just wondering, 'cause I'm thinking of seeing it," he says. Okaay.
The Lazystars are set to go off next, but one of the night's visiting bands, West Virginia's Librarians, are the fall fest's first no-call/no-show, so the running order changes. Dave Hawkins and his Lazystars mates order a couple more drinks from the bar as the action shifts to the Showroom.
"Did I miss Abe Vigoda?" Pan De Sal's Judi Brown asks as she enters the Aruba lobby with a group of friends. Relieved to hear she has not (her old band, Love Pentagon, opened for the LA quartet once in SoCal), she explains that her posse parked "in the hood," then rode bikes down to the Griffin for Dreaming of Lions and then over to the Aruba. Who said Neon Reverbers were allowed to be healthy this weekend?
Vigoda hits the stage around 9:45 (only 15 minutes behind schedule) sounding more like the synthy cold-wave outfit on new disc Crush than the fidgety post-punkers of previous releases — not that there's anything wrong with that. The two styles intermingle terrifically throughout an arty, British-sounding set that appears to please the steadily amassing, scenester-filled crowd. The real question: Will Abe Vigoda re-visit Vegas before its namesake passes on? Wait, is that guy even still alive?
Then it's time for one of those crazy contrasts that fuels the Neon Reverb experience. One moment I'm chilling to The Lazystars, a Vegas rock band with bright hooks and should-be radio hits, the next I'm being assaulted by Crocodiles, a San Diego rock band hiding in the dark and hammering every speck of the Showroom with noisy waves of sound. Think: Jesus and Mary Chain catalog with My Bloody Valentine production. The super-intense set ends with a violent blast of deafening sound that lasts a full minute after the band exits the stage. Hey, it's one way to end a show.
Back in the Lounge, a less-heralded band is making new fans. The Steelwells, a six-piece out of Orange County, plays a string of nimble pop tunes perhaps best described as Arcade Fire-y without trying so hard. Singer Joey Winter has an earthy sort of charm up front, while the group's three-percussionist lineup spices up the mix. Beauty Bar owner Paul Devitt seems to like it; he's made the drive over from his place, which has its own Neon Reverb showcase tonight.
The night's third San Diego band, The Soft Pack, start up in the Showroom around 12:25 (scheduled time: midnight ... NR co-organizer Thirry Harlin is doing a solid job cracking the whip tonight). The garage-rockers, who used to go by the name The Muslims, fit nicely onto a bill with Abe Vigoda and Crocodiles — all three write melodies your grandma might have danced to in her day, then murk them up with gloriously clattering layers.
Wiretree, a quartet from Austin, apparently kicked off its Thunderbird set midway through The Soft Pack, then got halted so the crowd could catch up. It's a good move; the two-stage routine works best when bands alternate: Why make anyone play to an empty room? The Texans begin again around 1:20 (hey, wasn't Twin Brother scheduled for 1:15?) and, in keeping with the theme of the night, impress. Power-pop with an occasional twang, and I'm feeling a little Gerry Rafferty vibe.
1:56 a.m.: Twin Brother begins wrapping up Night 2 in the Showroom. Though I'm not convinced the Vegas fivesome's quiet-loud-quiet prog-folk intricacies — in fine form tonight, once again, by the way — are the best remedy for late-night exhaustion, the remaining throng of more than 50 when the show ends at 2:30 a.m. says plenty about the band's popularity. And about Neon Reverb's increasing understanding of what it takes to draw — and sustain — a crowd.