In 2012, Cold Specks released I Predict a Graceful Explosion, an incredibly delicate yet powerful album that earned many accolades, including a nomination for Canada’s Polaris Prize. Most of the compositions showcase the pseudonymed Al Spx‘s wonderfully unique and soulful voice, offering emotive soundscapes that often exist as the brassiere supporting and elevating her voluptuous vocals to the center of attention.
She’s toured as a headliner and as a support act, and in that latter iteration she came to Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club as the opener for My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James. The set commenced in front of an approximately 1/3-full club, quietly and spiritually, bathed in minimalist, steady lighting. She was joined on stage by three other musicians, offering up a melange of sparse instrumentation that includes synths, light kick and snare drum, baritone saxophone and electric guitar that supplement Spx’s almost ever-present acoustic guitar (sometimes she employes a Fender hollow body). Also, a woodwind that appeared to be a LeBlanc contra-alto clarinet, which provided a mellifluous vibrato on the bottom end, perhaps standing in for what might have traditionally been arranged for standing bass.
The sound is almost invariably great at 9:30 Club — there is rarely an “opening band mix” issue — and this night was no exception. The static lights though, often in yellow and green, were not exactly flattering. Spx’s vocals shone through clearly as the true center of the compositions, their power equal to that of Alabama Shakes‘ Brittany Howard, squared. Yes…squared.
The set proceeds, the crowd attentive but more polite than wowed. And then she pulls out a cover of Will Smith‘s “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” (Those in the audience who hadn’t reviewed her recent set lists clearly didn’t see this coming). It’s a pretty fantastic cover, actually, but with an unintended side effect: it riles up the (now substantially larger) crowd. And that’s what you want to do as an opener, right? Well, normally yes, but the set’s construction lacks coherence and build, and as the band returns into the shadows with a quiet number, the vibe becomes confused, the momentum lost. The crowd’s chatter becomes incessant and distracting, ruining the pristine silence that would best accompany her hauntingly beautiful compositions.
This continues for a few songs and then it seems that we’ve reached the finale; a Velvet Underground-ish crescendo and culmination complete with a violin bow on the electric guitar and the belching of a discordant baritone sax. This is how you end the set as the opener, right? The budding frenzy is again killed, this time by tuning, more tuning, and then…another slow, contemplative song. That the song itself is fantastic is secondary; the crowd again shows evidence of dissatisfaction with the emotional yo-yo of the set list and the chatter resumes its distracting buzz. The song ends, and Spx makes one last address to the crowd, self-consciously shoe-gazing and mumbling something about having a record for sale — as if embarrassed by that fact — before meandering off stage.
Cold Specks’ I Predict a Graceful Explosion was one of the best releases of 2012; it’s tremendous music. The case could easily be made that their songs are indeed better than most all of those later performed by Jim James. But, there is a clear difference between James’ effervescent, crowd-attuned performance and the muted self-indulgence of the pure artist. It’s the difference between being solely an artist, and being both artist AND performer. The difference between performing for one’s own edification and performing for the edification of an audience. By taking a slightly more confident and outward-focused approach to performance, Cold Specks could have connected with this particular audience and probably would have sold a few more records at the merch table.