PigPen Theatre Co., Prowling Kind, Dry River Yacht Club, & More Hotel San Carlos 3/7/14
True to Hotel San Carlos' history as a schoolhouse the Viva PHX lineup schooled the audience in the art of drama (and banjos, but we'll get to that later). There were a few surprises throughout the night, and a few issues during sound checks, but overall it was a good time with a Phoenix-dominated lineup of bands.
Locals The Prowling Kind warmed up the stage with a sweet, strong set of indie songs (there were shoegaze-y moments, too). Front woman Mickey Louise Pangburn was positively captivating, even during her more subdued moments, though it's when she's getting so into a song that her voice kind of goes on rails that she really shines. We say if she left the microphone covered in lipstick, she got her message across.
The room's energy level took a shift when South By Southwest-bound act Something Went Awry! launched into the waves of funky jazz jams "Potato" and "Stand Still." The audience was a little taken aback by the group's aggressive mix of genres (including rock, metal, and prog) coming at them in the style of jazz improvisation.
When lead guitarist Brandon Biallas started playing his instrument with his teeth during "Stand Still," it may have helped to break the ice a bit. The audience definitely seemed more accessible from that point on. SWA's roots as a ska band, when it surfaced, brought a sense of humor to the set. Just leave at this: For a jazz band, they rocked.
The next band, two-piece bluegrass group Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold, was added to the bill on the night before Viva PHX, and thank local promoter that is Psycho Steve for that. Through the first two acts, the audience felt it was in control -- people left and had personal conversations -- but that stopped in the presence of charismatic vocalist and guitarist Tyler Matock, who vigorously worked the crowd, walked among 'em, brought a few people on stage to dance and even made a murder ballad sound really damn peppy (ah, bluegrass music).
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The truly impressive thing about Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold, though, is banjo player Jesse Gray. According to a local bluegrass expert in the audience, Gray picks in a soft-handed style called clawhammer on a banjo that's designed for much harder playing styles like Scruggs. Basically, when he plays his banjo it probably hurts -- a lot. Not that this knowledge could make his playing any more beautiful and impressive (I mean, at some point he made his banjo sound like a sitar), but, wait, yeah, it does.
Of the six groups that took the stage, the only out-of-towners were PigPen Theatre Co. -- a theater troupe of multi-instrumentalists who met at the Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama six years ago. Viva PHX was PigPen's Phoenix debut, and they killed it, stuffed it, and hung it above the mantelpiece to remember them by.
Reminiscent of the harmonic folk heavyweights such as Fleet Foxes and Crosby Stills and Nash, PigPen's vocals are what really set them apart. Okay, and maybe the rad accordion and double banjos helped. Everyone at Hotel San Carlos at 10 p.m. were among the luckiest crowd of the night.
Despite a few people who knew the band going into the show, about 85 percent of the audience likely went home to spread the word about the best surprise of the night (sorry, Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold). The crowd, for lack of a more perfect description, erupted at the end of "Crow," which is off PigPen's debut album Bremen. The rest of the set went the same and ended with the always fun performance of "The Weight" by The Band.
The night closed out with the Phoenix favorites Dry River Yacht Club and Tobie Milford (and friends). Is there really much to say about these acts that the Phoenix music scenester doesn't already know and love about them? How about just the highlights? Dry River played a set of well-loved and new songs all off the shelf of gypsy folk rock with that dash of the dramatic. As per usual, they transfixed the crowd.
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They also announced the vinyl release of their new album "El Tigre" outside of the Hayden Mill in Tempe on April 4. Milford closed out the night -- admitting it's tough for a solo act, even one with complicated loop pedal songs, to follow the eight-piece DRYC -- with three solo songs and then brought on violin, viola, drummer and keys players to give the stage and its audience a proper sendoff.