The show began at 9 p.m., and those already downstairs slouched against the back wall and took in Liz W. Carlisle’s ’06 country-western tinged songs. Carlisle, whose lilting melodies and atmospheric acoustic guitar playing were paired in nearly every song to great effect, performed both alone and with Russell Wolff on acoustic guitar and vocals. The two had some nice moments of vocal and instrumental interplay—Wolff had a grin on his face for the duration and Carlisle also seemed to be genuinely enjoying the songs, if not the paltry audience.
After Carlisle had finished her (mostly) solo set, Russell Wolff and his band (comprised of another guitarist, bassist and drummer) took the stage—such as it is—and proceeded to perform a relatively homogenous selection of vocally quirky but musically conventional pop-country tunes, occasionally sounding like a softened Old 97s. Wolff and his group, though not the most musically talented band on the scene nor the most lyrically eloquent, was nonetheless quite engaging and fun. Wolff did repeatedly reference the nature of the venue (“damn it feels good to be back in a basement”) and the dearth of spectators (“apparently a few people couldn’t make it tonight”) but for the most part, he put on a good-natured show including several impressive musical moments. Carlisle was called onstage to join the band towards the end and added some nice harmony. Banter was humorous yet undoubtedly off-beat.
Following the Russell Wolff band was Harvard’s own Reasonable People’s League (RPL) featuring Greg J. Gagnon ’05 and partner AKA, both of whom took a good 15 to 20 minutes to set up their dual-laptop act. During this time, Gagnon streamed reverb-enhanced “Simpsons” clips paired with a broken backbeat and whirring turntables. Upon starting the actual performance piece, Gagnon indulged in some very bizarre laptop electronica and trance that seemed centered around atonal passages matched with thumping bass and punchy drum loops. The dissonance of the act became more pronounced as time went on. It would have been cool if the RPL had decided to create a sort of general tonal dynamic with their stage time, building from a low point to a crescendo, but they instead kept their loops and beats relatively flat and constant. As a result, their “tunes” quickly started to sound derivative and increasingly redundant. Even those beats that were at first interesting became incessant given the excessively long time allotted each sample. Perhaps my unfamiliarity with the field of electronica, trance and laptop music in general dictates my reaction, but on the whole I found the performance relatively unengaging.
Visualizations were projected on a white sheet by the second laptop and featured mostly pastels along with some strange meta/avant-garde text snippets and occasional movies. It would have been interesting if RPL had sampled in/performed some Jim Morrison-esque poetry or spoken word over their samples to create a new musical and lyrical dimension but unfortunately we were left with the visualizations and oft-repeated clips. I think that the main problem with the RPL was that there was really nothing to hang onto in their songs: melodic hooks were completely absent and general tonality was sporadic at best.
The RPL has some really interesting ideas, both in terms of concept and performance and they could put on a very intriguing show were they to appeal more to the standard human musical sensibility. Those alternative music acts that succeed are always those that manage to incorporate some element of conventional music into their compositions in a seamless yet evident manner: without an anchor, those of us not used to electronica can quickly become lost.
By the time the show ended, approximately 15 people stood in the Cage, most of whom seemed to be friends of the RPL. The number of audience members had hardly fluctuated throughout the night. While the show was not particularly ground-breaking in any way, there was a certain degree of musicality in the performances that should theoretically merit greater interest. Despite the strange moments of Thursday night, the lengthy set-up times and the ungodly heat of the Cage, the Collective still managed to present relatively good music for free. With a few slight logistical refinements, this performace space might attract a larger gathering of fans.