The Voice is an Instrument: A Review of Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band & Tara Jane O’Neil @ The Independent


Last Wednesday, The Independent served up a modern musical cocktail, concocted of three distinct elements that (like any good drink) combined formed an experience greater than the sum of its parts. Tunde Adebimpe (from TV on the Radio fame) rolled through town with his new project, and brought a couple interesting opening acts along for the ride.

Local jazz-rockers Black Cobra Vipers (previous coverage here) opened the show to a fairly thin crowd, breezing comfortably through all the songs on their excellent EP (appropriately titled EP). Because it was Wednesday in San Francisco, the audience did their best to act cool and careless, however they couldn’t help but tap their feet and bob their heads to the Vipers’ infectious groovin’. Nice job, boys.

Next up was Portland songwriter and visual artist Tara Jane O’Neil, who slipped onto stage silently like a sniper. Feathers of hair poked sheepishly from under her crooked baseball cap as she twiddled a few knobs on a floor-mounted pedalboard, bathed in a backdrop of deep blue stage lights. With such an unassuming presence, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was a guitar tech setting up… until the droning, reverb-drenched notes you hadn’t realize she’d been playing the whole time begin taking shape and drifting into your ears like a slow-moving cloud.

It’s fitting that the opening track on her arresting new LP Where Shine New Lights is called “Welcome.” On it, she spends just over a minute cooing soft, multilayered vocals to lure you into the porcelain-coated dreamworld where her delicate self-expressions are crafted. Live it’s also the perfect way to kick off a set. Tara plays the guitar more like a piano, letting every sparse note ring out like a bell, rising to her tiptoes with each pluck of the string, fully immersing herself in the song. Drummer Ryan Sawyer occasionally assisted in setting the rhythm, never louder than a heartbeat.

Comparisons can be drawn to fellow Portland native Liz Harris of Grouper, or even a sedated Leslie Feist. Yes, there’s lots of reverb. Yes, it’s mostly ambient. But there’s something distinctly tuneful and melodious about her arrangements, beckoning you closer… and closer… like a warm curl of sunlit steam rising from a freshly-baked apple pie tickling your nostrils… you just… can’t… help… it…

Tara Jane O’Neil – “Wordless in Woods”

By this point, the venue had filled out nicely. We were all ready for a pick-me-up after emerging from the trancelike state, and headliners Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band delivered. Featuring Tunde Adebimpe along with members of Tall Firs, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and more, they got our blood moving with an eclectic mix of upbeat indie rock, jazz drumming, and some pretty cool vocal trickery. While TV On The Radio comparisons are unavoidable thanks to the unique vocal stylings, this sounded different. These songs are looser, more organic, and ultimately more accessible. Tunde has mastered the art of altering his vocals through a tabletop effects loop, twisting each note he sings to sound as though it were cast into an echoing abyss, multiplied, and blasted out over the speakers like a hundred tiny Tundes. It’s weird and unnerving at first, and totally kick-ass once you get used to its unconventional sound.

“Knocking Ghost” turns Tunde’s vocals into a siren, while “Mad Lifeline” revolves around a thin, carefree whistled motif floating high above a muddy bass line, evolving along its eight minutes from African psychedelic rock to a soft, near a-cappella ending. Leaving you strolling bleary-eyed through the back alleys of a Moroccan open-air market, hashish smoke billowing all around. The heat building into a mirage on the horizon. The rhythm section feating Ryan Sawyer on drums and Josh Werner on bass laid down such a thick, undulating groove that one audience member even sarcastically called for “more bass!!”, to which Tunde replied “any more bass, and we’d probably cause an earthquake!” The wordless call and response chorus of “The Blast, The Bloom” felt like a festival moment seeing everyone in the crowd smiling and singing along wordlessly on instinct, before transitioning into a skitter-y dance-rock outro.

All in all, Tunde is a creative force to be reckoned with, and he’s found a group of A-players to help bring his ideas to life in between TVotR records. Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band somehow manages to sound unique amongst all the “been there, done that” that exists in the indie rock landscape. The EP is great, but their music sounds much richer live.

Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band – “The Blast, The Bloom”