Show Review: Mia Doi Todd with Bells at Yoshi’s SF, 3/7/2012

by Jason LeRoy on March 9, 2012

The lineup at Yoshi’s San Francisco on Wednesday evening was basically the ideal music program for a dreamy hipster cruise of the Caribbean. It was a night of transporting melodies and gently swaying rhythms, soothing vocals and sleepy-eyed acoustics. There were moments I could literally feel little blasts of sea breeze on my face. But then Mia Doi Todd complained that the air conditioner was too strong, so they turned it off.

The opener was an Oakland-based band called Bells. Hey, wanna know what to call your band if you want to make it absolutely impossible to find any information about you online? BELLS. I’ve spent at least 30 minutes searching every variation of “bells band oakland music” on every search engine and social media page I could find, and to no avail. Because with Sleigh Bells, School of Seven Bells, Broken Bells, Hurricane Bells, and Howling Bells out there, they might as well have named themselves “Wolf” in 2007. Apparently when they emphasized the importance of signing up for the email list, they meant it. [UPDATE: Bells reached out to us and provided these three links.]

Which is a shame, because they were really good! I had absolutely no idea Oakland had an Afropop/lounge/calypso/post-punk fusion band of its very own. Like a hybrid of Morcheeba and Vampire Weekend, Bells consists of an enchanting female vocalist, a bassist who resembles a lanky young Judd Apatow, a guitarist who resembles a fuller Michael Cera, and a female percussion player with drums, bells, and other toys at her disposal. They played a soothingly stellar and refreshing set, enlivening their relaxed calypso sound with unexpected but pleasingly angular bursts of electric guitar. In less than half an hour, they shot to the top of my personal Bay Area Bands to Watch list.

They may have actually set the bar too high for Mia Doi Todd, whose set had distinctly less energy but lasted three times the length. Not that this should have been a surprise to those familiar with Doi Todd’s albums, which can be affectionately described as delicately gorgeous nap music. Perhaps supperclub would have been a better venue. It is also worth noting that Doi Todd was six months pregnant, “as you can see,” she said, to which I was like, “No, I can’t! You’re wearing a flowy dress and holding a big acoustic guitar in front of your stomach!” She accompanied herself on acoustic guitar and was joined solely by her longtime percussionist, Andres Renteria, for a stripped-down and seductive yet somnambulistic set.

It is certainly possible that her nearly third-trimester pregnancy had something to do with the hushed stillness of her performance, like Astrud Gilberto by way of Nick Drake; she was incredibly soft-spoken during her few between-song comments, and alluded to playing “chords that won’t wake [the baby] up.” While I’m no Dr. Pregnancy, some ladies in the audience remarked afterward that there was a moment about midway through the set when it was extremely clear the baby had woken up and started kicking her. Perhaps I did notice this, but chalked it up to guitar-player face.

Doi Todd mentioned that she’d come to the Bay Area two nights earlier to spend some quality time at Green Gulch before the show. She was like, “Do you know Green Gulch?” Everyone nodded. I had no clue what it was, but she seemed quite taken with it. Having now Googled it, I can exclusively reveal (to myself) that Green Gulch has something to do with the San Francisco Zen Center, which explains why I’ve never heard of it. It looks nice! Although they may have over-Zenned her. She did break from Zen when she asked the house to turn off the A/C, prompting a generous audience member to fork over a shawl; “Thanks mom,” Doi Todd whispered appreciatively as she fastened it around her shoulders.

Doi Todd and Renteria played a nearly 90-minute set that spanned her 15-year recording career, from 1997’s the ewe and the eye all the way to her stunning 2011 release, Cosmic Ocean Ship. Although it may have been almost too soothing, languorous tune after languorous tune, all delivered in her exquisitely calm vocals, it surely sent the fans away pleased. Well, mostly. At one point, Doi Todd mentioned that someone had told her the Yoshi’s site described her as Brazilian. “I’m not Brazilian,” she said bemusedly. “I was born and raised in Los Angeles.” Which caused some audible bristling from a pair of Brazilians at the table next to me. I think they felt cheated.

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