In Birmingham, there is a legend about an Akron/Family show that occurred a couple years ago at the city’s crusty indie-rock staple, The Nick. On this hallowed night in September, about 13 people showed up, and by the end of the set the majority of those had been on stage at some point, or so the myth goes. Chants in circles, dissonant noises, beards--it all seemed kind of cultish to me. And the unequivocally joyous mood of Love Is Simple had me on my guard. I didn’t want to be waiting for the next appearance of the Hale-Bopp by the time I left the venue. But, there had been preemptive best-show-of-the-year claims by some, and I was willing to accept the possibility.
I walked into the door of the Bottletree wondering how the hell Greg Davis, Megafaun, and Akron/Family could possibly live up to my expectations. I have been a big fan of Akron/Family for a quite a while and have more recently become an equally big fan of Greg Davis. I kept a calm composure, but inside I was buzzing with an unusual excitement.
The first thing I saw when I walked into the door was a single laptop sitting in front of the stage curtain/projection screen. I would come to find out that this was Greg Davis’ setup. He sat Indian style with complete concentration on his laptop and a swirling inkblot projected onto the screen behind him. Whether by choice or by instrumental limitations, Davis focused on drawn-out drones most resembling his material from Somnia. It obviously had a difficult time captivating most of the crowd, and they continued to small talk through his set. Normally, this is where I would rant and complain about the chatter, but the combination of noise and drone had the same effect on me as the time I listened to Ambient 1: Music for Airports in an actual airport. I was removed from my surroundings but hyper-aware of them--an objective observer. His set concluded with Megafaun backing the drones with acoustic instruments that were more reminiscent of the majority of Davis’ material.
With no pause in the music, Greg Davis quietly left, the curtain was raised, and Megafaun started their set. I had no prior experience with their music, so it was a pleasant surprise when they began a quiet chant atop rolling music that was precisely what I expected to hear from Akron/Family, albeit a bit sparser, more melodic, and twangier. The drums were definitely the driving force of their sound, providing a romping and powerful tempo for the other two members to twiddle atop. Without a particularly commanding stage presence, they were a nice warm up for what everyone had come to see.
When Akron/Family finally took the stage, they were joined by both Megafaun and Greg Davis. The small, mustached member started the set by urging the Bottletree staff to “turn off the air conditioning because I need my voice more than anyone else here.” This was the first of a few times his arrogance distracted me from the performance. Luckily, there were seven other people to provide some humble balance. Figuring it best to transition with a joke, the band came out waving an American flag and playing an ironic, Top Gun-style military ballad that faded into “Franny/You’re Human.” I had listened to their new album for a few weeks leading up the show, and I was pretty familiar with their new songs and their Neil Young-ish character, so I was expecting a bit of meandering and rocking out. However, I don’t think anyone was expecting the length to which they would extend the songs, enough so that on a few occasions my uninitiated friend exclaimed to me, “You didn’t tell me we were seeing a jam band!” It took some getting used to, but what can people expect when there are eight musicians on stage and no single person directing the show? A concise and to-the-point three minute song? Hardly. Anyway, I think the underlying bias against jam music has more to do with its listeners than the actual music. So with a combination of energy and alcohol, most of the crowd learned to let their bodies move and enjoy the show.
The quiet-loud dynamic was still firmly in place and worked wondrously with the larger line-up of instruments. Somewhat unfortunately, and presumably due to the loss of guitarist/vocalist Ryan Vanderhoof, they played very few older songs. Highlights include an amazingly well-performed “Phenomena,” the shiver-inducing vocal harmonies on “Awake,” and an interlude of bells leading up to “No Space in This Realm.” Sure, to provide the people with their money’s worth, they played for nearly two and half hours that nonetheless seemed to fly by quicker than shorter sets.
So… best show of the year? That remains to be seen. But I definitely have at least a slight regret about passing up the opportunity to see them again two nights later in Athens.