It’s a stage suited to the solitary singer-songwriter; Arlington, Virginia’s Iota Club & Cafe doesn’t hold 12 or 15 or 18 or however many musicians are actually on stage performing as the Austin, Texas collective Mother Falcon. It’s difficult to tell on this freezing cold evening; the club is partitioned down the middle by a brick wall and full of buoyant NPR donors, making the vantage from the back a bit uncertain. What is certain is that there’s a flotilla’s worth of musicians together on this journey.
They’re besotted in orchestral black meets hipster nerd attire, having become those rare folk from temperate climes who revel in the sartorial possibilities that dramatic weather shifts reveal. “Look at all these black scarves I have,” a member of the collective notes with a self-aware smirk, straddling both their embrace of a monochromatic presentation as well as its relative absurdity in relation to their technicolor music. And if those sable scarves don’t keep the Austin collective sufficiently warm, surely proximate body heat is helping maintain the dexterity required for their orchestral compositions.
A handful of songs in, their symphonic cover of Radiohead‘s “Paranoid Android” seems fitting, given the existence of both Christopher O’Riley‘s piano covers and Jonny Greenwood‘s work with Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Their arrangement leans a bit more morose than majestic, at times hurrying the original time stamp and at others easing back, and it’s a definite highlight.
They bring something of an entrepreneurial spirit to the stage, joining the drip drop of music school kids that have decoded the existence of a marketplace for music that bridges the divide between high culture and low. Multi-part harmonies are backed by instruments not normally conjoined, like slide guitar and bassoon, accordion and banjo, violin and brass. (How does one decide to pick up the bassoon? It’s not like there’s a huge demand for…bassoon music. It seems safe to assume that, for every male under 40, it’s because they’re big fans of the Mos Eisley Cantina Band in “Star Wars”).
So, upon first glance at the stage, one expects a much more disjointed sound than what manifests itself in their bouillabaisse of orchestral jazzy pop. Which, particularly as they are crammed into a small space in a brick-walled room not designed for this sort of performance, is entirely remarkable.
To the extent that this ground has been tilled, elements bring DeVotchKa to mind, and the more pop-related tracks might conjure up Broken Social Scene. At other times they embrace a 1930s speakeasy vibe, others an 80s cock-of-the-walk guitar solo, and in the midst are these discordant string parts that evoke The Velvet Underground (“Blue and Gold”).
The wonder reserved for their music doesn’t extend to their intra-show banter, though, and their one bad habit seems to be a string of unforced errors between songs. Their more-ironic-than-funny jokes are appreciated by my inner nerd more than by those around me, who mostly respond to breaks in the action with either quizzical looks or loud barroom chatter.
To the extent that they have a hit, it’s “Dirty Summer,” the most Broken Social Scene-y song of the evening, and thus not surprisingly given the uncharted path their taking, its the one that people immediately “get.” Its sing-a-long — a feature of increased prominence in the post-Funeral world — presents a collective moment for the audience, now merging for a moment with the collective on stage. It’s a rollicking good time, and with that plus one more, they hold on stage before dispensing with feigned drama and staying in place for a vigorous, one-song encore that leaves their audience smiling widely.
These aren’t the nerds celebrated by Madison Avenue or Hollywood. These are the real deal, exulting in their talent, telling the nerdiest of “jokes,” and reveling in these moments free of locker room bullying and sleepover embarrassments as outsiders standing together in the spotlight. It’s their safe place, and in it they shine.