Show Review: School of Seven Bells, Warpaint and Phantogram at Slim’s 10/6/09

by Gordon Elgart on October 8, 2009

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I had only a passing familiarity with School of Seven Bells before it was suggested I would like them.  I believe I was told, “If you like Murder By Death, you should check out School of Seven Bells.”  That’s a poor “RIYL,” but it turned out fine in the end.  Still, this is a band that needs my help to take their show to the next level. I hope they’re listening.

The opening band was called Phantogram, and they kicked off the night like I expected the whole night would go:  with no drummer and plenty of reverb.  It was hard at times to tell what was live and what was pre-recorded with them.  Other than the vocals and some guitar riffs, everything else could have been on tape.  The band moved around with a lot of purpose, though, and by the end of the night, their stage presence would be missed.  (More on that to come.)  I should have bought their CD.  What was I thinking?

The main support was Warpaint, and a few things really stood out about this band.  The first is that the bass player is really good.  She plays a mean bass lick, and plays it on a classic Rickenbacker bass.  It looks and sounds great.  The second thing is that the vocals and vocal harmonies sounded really good.  Although they also used a lot of reverb (although they did have a drummer), the lead vocalist sounded a lot like Dolores Riordan on her good days.  The last thing about this band was that they lack any sort of stage presence at all.  They really just stand there, poorly lit, playing their songs.  The small crowd was lulled into silence for much of their set, and their music was better than the smattering of applause they received.

Finally, there was School of Seven Bells.  I liked their music right away, and wanted to start dancing.  I looked around, thinking others would be dancing, and everyone was just standing still, staring straight ahead, maybe swaying a little bit.  I don’t understand this.  My initial reaction to them was that they sound just like the kind of music I’d be dancing to at Death Guild.  I waited for the crowd to pick up the energy, but it never happened.  Unlike some shows where you are surrounded by people truly excited to be there, this seemed like one of those shows where everyone is just a curious onlooker.  In these cases, the band has to get people going.

And this is where School of Seven Bells is lacking as a live band.  While they sound good, the only person on stage who’s really putting in an effort to perform is Benjamin Curtis (of Secret Machines).  But because the identical twin Deheza sisters are put out front, he’s stuck in the back with a pedal board, a laptop, and his guitar.  He uses this guitar to fine effect, as he spends most of the set playing really cool sounding stuff on the guitar to augment the recorded tracks.  Alejandra, the singer, occasionally strums a guitar, but spends more time looking down than engaging her audience.  Claudia never really moves from her spot at all.

So it’s a weird contrast.  On the one hand, School of Seven Bells sounds great, both on record and live.  I’ll even say that the live sound is better because it breathes more.  The stage show, on the other hand, lacks the oomph they need to take themselves to the next level.  My advice:  bring Benjamin forward, get the guitar out of Alejandra’s hands, and interact with your audience a bit more.  You can thank me later.

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David Price was there with me, and got some photos from the show.

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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