Real Live Action

Slight Birching

w/ Lazy Bear, Daughter of Khan, Selkies, and Chris-a-riffic

Little Mountain Gallery; November 12, 2011

by Fraser Dobbs

Slight Birching   |   photo by Audrey Alexandrescu
Slight Birching   |   photo by Audrey Alexandrescu

When Little Mountain Gallery postponed hosting live music events last year, it wasn’t really a sure thing that they’d ever hold concerts again. With zoning issues squared away and some new TLC infused into Little Mountain’s East Van charm, five local bands stepped up to give the Gallery the welcome back it deserved. As headliner Slight Birching’s guitarist Sean Travis Ramsay said so eloquently, “shut up Gregor Robertson, we’re gonna play until 10:30!”

If Vancouver has anything resembling a local legend, it has to be Chris-a-riffic, a.k.a. Chris Alscher, whose sets are as well-known for the crowd begging and pleading for “just one more” song as they are for his heartfelt intensity and introspective honesty. Alscher loves Little Mountain and he was a perfect choice to open the show—his short, quirky set was full of beautiful, sappy sweet pop songs riddled with infectious but oftentimes darkly personal lyrics that more than half the audience sang along to. Chris-a-riffic proved impossible not to enjoy, and everyone crowded in with glowing grins on their faces as his set came to a close.

Selkies—composed of beauties Julie Nelson and Jessica Wilkin—had gained a lot more confidence since I’d seen them last at the Prophouse Café. Songs tended to rely on Nelson’s whimpering, highly inflective voice to carry sparse guitar and woodwind notes, and the duo made excellent use of silence: the cliff-hanging pauses between verses and chord changes turned each slow, meandering tune into an allegory for quiet, shade-flecked journeys through forests and meadows.

Daughter of Khan played a sprawling, sitar session. Most sitar players ooze a level of professionalism and devotion that few other musicians can muster, and Khan was no exception. Alone but gleaming with energy, she played a traditional early-evening raga with masterful intensity. Watching Khan’s entire body ebb and flow with the tempo of her music made each crescendo burst with visible energy.

Lazy Bear, a.k.a. Adrienne LaBelle and Daniel Ruiz of Aunts & Uncles, played a set that wouldn’t be out of place in an attic bedroom or combination bookstore/café. Armed with a ukulele, glockenspiel, and loads of broken spring reverb, the two played a competent but not extraordinary string of quiet, easy-sung tracks. Lazy Bear’s shortcomings aren’t due to lack of talent, but rather to lack of ambition—these are two serious, hugely accomplished musicians, and playing this kind of easy-to-enjoy, easy-to-forget music seemed below them, especially inside the communal confines of Little Mountain. Their set was my definition of “weather music,” where songs filled a void but didn’t necessarily strive to achieve meaningful conversation with the crowd.

Slight Birching’s ever-rotating cast of musicians, anchored by the seminal Sean Travis Ramsay, was in full alignment, spearheading this joyous night. Between songs Ramsay gave thanks to the evening’s performers, but particularly to Ehren Salazar, who worked tirelessly over the last year and a half to make this show a reality.

To describe Slight Birching in any meaningful way is difficult—their odd, whimsically organic improv-folk is a constantly changing beast, and no two of their performances could ever be compared. Instrumental climaxes fell into place seemingly out of thin air and the coordination between musicians seemed at once orchestral and random; the sonic qualities of plastic cups were just one element explored to its natural end over the course of their night’s journey. Slight Birching may be the Schrödinger’s Cat of Vancouver’s music scene—neither here nor there, but entrancing to think about.