“We’re going to play some quiet songs, I hope that’s ok.” Those were the words of Califone frontman Tim Rutili just before the band begun their set at the Biltmore. A smallish crowd showed up to what to what turned out to be an oversized venue. Even the band was looking small. Usually a four-piece, Califone was pared back to two. Rutili sung and played lead guitar, while he was backed up an additional guitarist/strumstick player. Despite the reduced production, Califone was still able to fill the room with their gruff, experimental blues.
Earlier on, though, openers Cloudsplitter played some capable alt-country tunes. Dave Gowan’s sonorous vocals held a heavy presence in the room while the backing band built a frame of classic Canadiana. Cloudsplitter’s restrained rock structures sat in stark contrast to Califone’s freeform ways, though in their closer, “Start With The Soil,” the local quartet began to let loose a little. Multi-instrumentalist Doug Liddle was particularly keen to leave the comforts of standard arrangements as he wailed on the banjo, steel guitar, and musical saw.
Califone’s minimalist washes of static-drenched southern folk melodies brought the audience into a slow, stark world of beauty. A standout of the evening was their cover of Psychic TV’s “The Orchids,” which languidly strayed through imperceptible places of darkness. Late in the evening, Rutili told a long and strange story about accidentally eating a large amount of chocolate laced with psychedelic mushrooms, after which “all was made clear” on the streets of their hometown of Chicago. Back to reality without missing a beat, the subtle plunking of the strumstick was perfectly executed on a bare-bones rendition of “Michigan Girls.”
Califone wrapped up the evening with a few songs by Red Red Meat, a ‘90s-era rock band many of the group had originally played in. At the end of the day, it was a simple and sweet show. It would have been nice to have had the band fill out a bit with the presence of multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker’s singular talent (apparently he was off touring Europe with Iron & Wine leader Samuel Beam), but those in the room were more than able to fill the space with their spirits.