David Byrne gave a TED talk five years ago exploring the relationship between the changing architecture of venues and the evolution of music — watch it; he’s brilliant — and asking the question, “Does the venue make the music?” Byrne’s answer is an unequivocal yes. Last night at the Swedish American Music Hall, indie-pop band The Mynabirds (Saddle Creek), touring their new album Lover’s Know, could have been a case study for this inquiry; the two distinct styles of songs played fared so differently in the Hall’s grand ballroom. All of them were good, but the ones that fit the venue were stupendously good, and I finally understood the use of the word “bird” in their name, as singer Laura Burhenn’s vocals spread albatross-wide and lifted me a’flight.
The grand ballroom, built in 1907 as a meeting place for the Swedish Society of San Francisco, features dark oak wainscoting 7′ high on every wall, intricate woodwork on its balcony, and is flanked by imposing thrones of a similarly dark oak. The stage is small. The walls are bare. There isn’t much to break up sound, which creates a problem not so much for fast songs, as for fast changing songs, songs with lots of lyrics, or quick turn arounds. Of the Mynabirds 14 songs, about half fit this category. They were good songs, mixing in with their pop sound some classic rock, and bringing to mind Grace Slick, early Rolling Stones, Three Dog Night, and Pink Floyd. There were politics, an ode to California, and there was a little bit of Motown on my favorite of these tunes, “Numbers Don’t Lie.” But, these songs needed a bigger stage and less alive acoustics to let their superpowers out.
“Numbers Don’t Lie” – The Mynabirds
When The Mynabirds had room to let things linger a little – in that room – holy sh*t. Burhenn’s vocals, soaring and soulful, were like warm gravy being poured on a Thanksgiving meal – you just want more and more and more with no thought of whether it’s any good for you, which thankfully in this case it is. So good for you.
Burhenn first visited SAH as part of Noisepop last spring and played an impressively lush solo set opening for Thao Ngyuen (check our coverage here). This time, she had a (solid) band with her (Bradley Hanan Carter on bass, keys and harmonies, Spike Phillips on drums, and Reese Richardson on guitar), which, added to her vocal harmonizer, loops, and her own keys, brought the lushness to new heights. “Semantics” – even with a fast-paced beat behind it, and haunted by a mysteriously (and erroneously) triggered vocal loop and restarted after about a minute – was a powerful indie-pop ballad, which showed off Burhenn’s Jeff Buckley-like vocal range. “What We Gained In The Fire,” performed solo to open the night, invoked every great female vocalist of the past 50 years – from Etta James to Patty Griffin. Infectious hooks and solid songwriting made songs like this — and others like “One Foot” and “Hanged Man” — seem familiar even if new, the sign of someone at home in her craft.
And “Omaha” … ohhh Omaha. Not only the band’s home base, but also my favorite song of the night, for the venue. Burhenn introduced the song by saying “This is for all the places and people … this is for all the nouns you can’t have anymore, but you wish you could.” Another haunted song, this one by eerie guitar tones from Richardson, and Burhenn’s effortlessly masterful vocals. I wanted to climb into the timbre of her voice on this one – rich and velvety, like Amy Winehouse or Adele, but still containing a vulnerability like Mazzy Star. This song shut the room up, from the only-minor din that had built up during less ambient sounds. “I won’t blame you if you stop / I won’t hate you if you quit / You gave me your medicine / Made me strong enough to leave you / And I did.”
I adore the Swedish American Music Hall, but I’m certain for this band a more accommodating venue acoustically would mean a complete setlist of this full throttle, heart-stopping (or heart-bursting) music that you’d gush about for ages.
My imperative: make space in your life for this band.
“Omaha” – The Mynabirds