French Quarter at U.C. Irvine Last Night

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French Quarter, The Teeets, Hollow Sunshine & Kevin Greenspon
May 23, 2011
Cross Cultural Center, U.C. Irvine 

Fresh out of recording his latest record, French Quarter frontman Stephen Steinbrink returned to Irvine with a backing band and new set of songs, shifting gears from previous solo performances. The band, featuring bass guitarist and drummer, headlined an eclectic lineup of noise pop and pop punk, expanding their sound while forgoing some of the earlier intimacy of Steinbrink's craft. No, the effect wasn't quite like Dylan going electric, but in exploring new moods, Steinbrink more clearly distinguishes the band's sound from earlier music produced under his own name.

First on last night's bill was Kevin Greenspon, a Los Angeles native whose recordings feature ambient guitar and cassette loops which collide with and spill into each other. His work contains discernable movements of sound that are soft and ethereal during one moment while dissonant and destructive during another. In a perfect world, Greenspon's soundscapes would be the soundtrack for Disneyland's Space Mountain, echoing all the speedy thrills and turbulence of interplanetary travel. Drone and noise are staples of experimental music, but rarely are they applied so affectively as Greenspon's moody, crescendoing sound collages. 

The next performance, by San Luis Obispo's Hollow Sunshine, is the one-man project of Reuben Sawyer, whose songs also tackle the harmony and dissonance of ambient noise. He began his set with a hazy guitar composition, followed by a longer, darker work performed with a customized metal disc which he used to manipulate different layers of sound. The resulting piece was tempered with melodious and harsh textures, evoking the gloom and doom of rusty hooks and dusky caverns. Sawyer's set was graciously short, although I would've liked to hear a broader collection of songs as a whole.

All-girl punk band The Teeets, sharing a West Coast bill with French Quarter, wrapped up their tour with a high-energy and uptempo set to balance out the night. Their performance reminded me a bit of the antic and clamorous spirit of L.A.'s Mika Miko (now disbanded), although their songs tend to be more melodic and full of hooks. There's a similar sense of restless, teenage abandon, with songs about pot, sex and cigarettes.

To top off the night, French Quarter began their set by testing out several new songs scheduled to be on the next record. Considering past performances by Steinbrink, the result was unexpected. In solo performances, Steinbrink uses the formidable combination of his guitar and voice to create sufficient rhythm and melody. The resulting shows are intimate and more in line with a folk performance, inviting the audience to pay attention to songwriting. With a bassist and drummer, Steinbrink expands the musical direction of French Quarter, but it also allows him to pull back and defer to the rhythm section.

Despite my own reservations, the crowd responded well to the new material, with several in the audience dancing to some of the funkier grooves and melodies. At one point, as if sensing some distance, both physical and psychic, Steinbrink asked the audience to step forward and close in on the band. After he finished the set with a few selections from the last record, Rennet, I understood the distinction he may have wanted to make between French Quarter and his solo work. In the past, the two projects and monikers seemed interchangeable, but now the former has taken on more life and weight of its own.

Critic's Bias: I first saw Stephen Steinbrink perform by himself at an Acrobatics Everyday show during the winter of 2009, back when he was playing songs from his Ugly Unknowns record. Technically, it's not a French Quarter record since it was released under his own name, but that was the kind of performance I had come to expect from Steinbrink.

The Crowd: The usual crowd of teenage and college-age fans, although there was a small conspicuously over-40 group of adults in attendance. By the time French Quarter started playing around 11:00 p.m., they were gone, presumably because they have work in the morning.

Random Notebook Dump: Written on the whiteboard near the stage was the following message from Stephen Steinbrink.

To the concert! While you enjoy the music, please also focus on these simple, yet profound meditations:

1. What do you do when yr bathroom iPod & yr kitchen iPod break on the same day?
2. You are really just a sandwich that you eat on a mid-summer's day.
3. I saw you at the new stripmall and you looked at me like a stranger.
4. Will you cut yr losses?
5. Will you learn the bass?
6. Live it up, finally.
7. We love the (adj.) enigma in the cupboard at YOBS or the Ace Hardware movie night.

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