San Francisco, Ca
Feb. 22, 2014
Through unforeseen circumstances, I arrived at The Chapel on the Saturday night before last with four tickets to my name, all claimed by close associates. My photographer and I took up two of the count, and the other two were promised to some female companions that I’d rendezvoused with at the Wood Brothers show a month ago. After assembling the crew–including a ticket holding chum from my college years–I strolled to the box office, confident in my utility, and was promptly sent back, two tickets shy.
We were in too deep now, too committed to the evening, and I had no way to remedy the growing blight on my previously sterling reputation. I frantically called my editor to no avail, tried my hand with the box office again, and waited out front for a manager to set me straight. A few more minutes of waiting, and a soft-spoken man in a baseball cap approached me.
“Are you Eric?”
“Why, yes I am.”
“Who are you with?”
“Sorry man, I don’t have your name on any list. Who’d you talk to?”
“My editor (as always) took care of the details. The publicist for Magic Trick, maybe?”
“We don’t really have a publicist. Just had one for the album release.”
[It was here, dear reader, that it dawned on me just who I was talking to- none other than Tim Cohen, the man I was there to see. Too deep to change course, I kept referring to his Magic Trick as some separate, mystical entity.]
“There was talk of covering Magic Trick, but yeah, not sure with who. Maybe it was the old publicist?”
“Cool. Well, I’ll get you on the list. You need two tickets?”
“That’d be fantastic.”
With a wave to the doorman, the crisis was averted. My utility firmly reinstated, I gathered the gaggle, nodded to the doorman, and charged into The Chapel halfway through the first act’s set. My apologies to Joseph Childress and band, but I was too riled and fixated on intoxicants to fully appreciate and report on your set.
Rattling through intermission, we landed front and center for the start of Kevin Morby. With the look and demeanor of far younger lads, Morby and his band played with the polish and attack of a seasoned set. Recalling a rustic Doug Martsch at times–maybe after a seaside spliff–the 25 year-old singer/guitarist sped through a slew of 60s psychedelia, garage rock, soul, and blues; slathering it all with a layer of echo and fuzz.
I don’t know who’s booking them, but these guys should be the house band at a beach bar. They roll out the perfect combination of gentle melody, laid-back lyricism, and subtle melting for the shore–an ideal mix for an ocean sinking sunset, or snake through the sand. While the organ and rhythm guitar provide some necessary atmospherics, Kevin Morby is the star of the show, through his downplayed guitar licks and endlessly morphing vocals. Delivering Lou Reed verses and doo-wop choruses in the same song, the frontman makes a strong case for regarding his personal material even higher than his work as a bassist for lo-fi wizards, Woods. Their prairie baked wisdom is stellar, granted, but Morby packs more power with his own crew.
After nearly quoting the Stones’ “Let it Bleed” in his Western inflected “If You Leave and if You Marry” (“You’re going down to the station with a ticket in your hand”), he boogied on over to set highlight “Slow Train,” a–you guessed it–slowly unwinding trip through the country. Over lapping guitar waves and a gently pulsing organ, Morby spoke to a swarm of windward Millenials with the line, “I don’t know my name and I don’t know my purpose/ I just know my place on the slow train.” He sealed off the set a few songs later with a proper solo, full of the dexterity and fury he’d been restraining all evening, and shook off the crowd’s apathetic lighter participation to call it a night.
We gathered at the curb for some transcendence during intermission, courtesy of a passing apothecary in a velvet suit, and worked back into the room during Magic Trick’s first song. I’ve never seen Tim Cohen’s primary group, The Fresh & Onlys, but I’ve been a devotee of their brand of Nuggets-inspired psych rock since grooving to “Peacock and Wing” off their self-titled first album. After obtaining high status in the still young San Francisco garage throwback scene, Cohen and company grew more polished with every release, riding on the strengths of Tim’s increasingly accomplished songwriting.
Starting off as a solo effort, before progressing into a dedicated unit, Magic Trick’s main distinction from Cohen’s better known outfit is the addition of female backing vocalists to offset his sometimes detached baritone. They’re a bit mellower, too, but capable of the same seismic freak-outs that The Onlys have built their name on, just lower in frequency and magnitude.
Dressed in a suit and a far steelier stare than I’d encountered out front, Tim Cohen looked and acted the part of a proper frontman, keeping his cool enough to set himself apart and letting emotional passages flow through him like momentary possessions. Though visibly sweating from the get-go, he made himself right at home on stage, as comfortable playing to a room full of spectators as strolling up the street. Even more impressively, he never let his own talents overshadow the significant contributions from his bandmates, instead letting them shine in their due times.
Behind the band, videos of dayglo cartoons and abstract imagery swirled the screen, alternating between astral projections and swimming tractors. Despite the general psychedelia and surf rock buzz of their song selection, their 2013 album, River of Souls, better fits a sunny Sunday stroll than a Saturday night freakout. Mellow without slowing down and melodic enough to keep skipping, it hits like a gentle, familiar breeze, oozing just a hint of the other thornier side.
They hit the perfect balance of groove and glimmer on “Blinding Light,” anchored by a winding Western guitar line, building to an ethereal wash of light strums and vocal harmonies, and roping right back to the rollick. The song featured the biggest separation between Cohen and his garage rock cohorts: his ear for melody, his feel for sugar sweet hooks and the knowledge of when to employ them. You could envision a world where he’s writing mid-level hits, probably on 70s AM radio.
After spending time out of state with family, the Virginia native returned to his adopted home of San Francisco earlier this year, and the show felt like something of a welcome back party, only thrown by the honoree. Not self-indulgent enough to literalize any of that sentiment, Cohen let his tunes do the talking and rolled out a well-paced set of rockers and drifters, bouncing between the two without missing a twang or hand-clap.
For a few numbers near the end, he brought out two trumpets to provide a little extra punch. Lifting scattered bursts into something stranger, one trumpet took over for an acid jazz solo, complete with a mute and free flowing direction, finally realizing the psych freak potential of the gathering. The guitars followed soon after, with the potency that’d been lurking underneath all night, and ripped the tracks wide open.
Closing with “Bridge of Gold,” another ode to a slow train–only this time with a destination (“the one I love”)–the meandering verses built up into an arena rock lick sync, both guitars hammering out the same triumphant chords. Though much of the room had cleared by the finale, the last scraps of majesty were well worth the wait. Still abuzz with all that fuzz, we left The Chapel, found a nearby watering hole, and dipped further into the well of transcendence, not calling it a night until the lights of last call flickered on.