David Bazan at The Sail Inn, 7-7-11

David Bazan
The Sail Inn
Thursday, July 7

Last night was the sixth time I've seen David Bazan perform, and I am struck by how each concert has been a unique experience. There were different band-names some of the times: Pedro the Lion, the group he's best known for, The Headphones, his synth-pop side project, and most recently, simply David Bazan, as he has been recording and performing under his own name for the past few years. But beyond project names, Bazan has always managed to try new things, to grow as a songwriter, and to continue to push the buttons of the people who listen to him.

Bazan's latest record,  Strange Negotiations, is a perfect example. Following the explicitly theologically minded Curse Your Branches, it's less heavy in subject matter, but not in sound. It's the first record Bazan has cut with a touring band, and it shows in the big riffs and heavy drums, yet doesn't forsake Bazan's quiet roots, either. Its sound falls somewhere between the mopey "slo-core" of Bazan's early records and the big rock sound of Control.

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Following a sturdy opening set by singer/songwriter Rocky Votolato (who I really wish had a backing band with him) Bazan and band took the stage. The lineup was similar to the one I first saw him with -- Bazan with a guitar, a drummer and a bass player. The roster lead to no-frills takes on the songs, a power trio presentation augmented every now and then by the drummer toying with a little keyboard.

If Curse Your Branches was about coming to terms with a changed idea of faith, Strange Negotiations is about the aftermath; about defining how you want to live your life now that you've made peace with some big ideas. "Fuck the gatekeeper," Bazan sang during "Level With Yourself," "'Cos I'm fine outside the gate."

Bazan and band didn't play any Headphones songs, but they did bring out some Pedro classics. He played three songs from 1998's It's Hard to Find a Friend: "Of Up and Coming Monarchs," "Big Trucks," and "When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run," and they all filled me with a tremendous sense of nostalgia.

The biggest cheer of the night came about mid-set, when Bazan played "Magazine," from 2002's Control. A scathing rebuke of consumer culture and fake status, the song is one of Bazan's heaviest, a drum-lead rocker that showcases his love for bands like Fugazi. The crowd lost it after the song, and Bazan's smile made it clear how good it must feel to have a crowd of people genuinely love what you do.

During "Bless This Mess," I watched a good looking guy swivel his hips to the beat, and I found myself wondering if I could have even imagined such a thing when I saw Pedro the Lion perform on the Achilles Heel tour.

As with every time I have seen him, Bazan took some time for Q & A session. No one had much to say this time, instead using the moment to shout out song requests. It stung a little, but it was a reminder that we were at a rock show, not the intimate gathering some Bazan shows have felt like. He announced that in the next couple weeks, he would be heading out on another living room tour. I've never attended one, but what I've heard about the last Tempe show makes me feel like I need to get in to the next one.

Bazan finished the evening with the title track from his latest, and he took particular glee in strangling notes out of the guitar, giving the dramatic finale of the song a Crazy Horse vibe, as his backing band played on steadily. The crowd called out for more, but Bazan didn't mess around with an encore. You have to respect an artist who gives it all during the proper set -- and while I easily could stood for a dozen more songs, you got the vibe that Bazan had said everything he needed to say for one evening.  

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: David Bazan and Rocky Votolato at Sail Inn

The Crowd: Exactly who you would expect. Some youth group kids, some former youth group kids who are now drinking and smoking to make up for lost time. The show was sold out, so as you can imagine, it was packed.

Spotted in the Crowd: A guy clearly modeling his look after the Andy Samburg character in "Dick in a Box," "Motherlover," and "Three Way." Judgment withheld because he kept shouting "good song" after each tune.

Random Notebook Dump: Bazan's smile after the crowd erupts in applause following "Magazine" is really something.

By the Way: For a little while, Bazan played in a touring ensemble called the Undertow Orchestra, with Mark Eitzel of American Music Club, Will Johnson of Centro-matic, and Vic Chesnutt. I wish the band could have recorded a proper album together before Chesnutt's untimely death, but some recordings of the collective exist. 

Set List:

"Wolves at the Door"
"That's How I Remember"
"Level With Yourself"
"Bless This Mess"
"Of Up and Coming Monarchs"
"Big Trucks"
"Eating Paper"
"Bearing Witness"
"Won't Let Go"
"Cold Beer and Cigarettes"
"When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run"
"Strange Negotiations"

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