For someone who’s a “music writer” (whatever that term entails), and for someone who’s listened to, supported, and loved independent music for well over a decade, one might be surprised to find out just how few live concerts I’ve attended in my life. Life circumstances have always seemed to get in the way of my opportunities to take in live music. In high school, I was able to catch a smattering of shows, like Spirit of the West at the Opera House in Toronto, or the very cool one-night reunion of Simon and Garfunkel at the Sky Dome in the same city. I always hear about shows, only to eventually not be able to go due to a host of preventing circumstances. Thus, when I originally heard that Asthmatic Kitty’s amazing alt-countryish band The Castanets were playing Buffalo on a benign Saturday night, held out little hope that I could see the band. After all, Buffalo is a 2-hour drive (one way) from my home, and I knew I’d be in the midst of a busy season in my life. Yet, as the date drew near, my schedule seemed to converge to a point where I had a window of one evening to finally get to attend a show. Before I knew it, I was loading up my car with my admittedly non-independent loving music wife, driving over the border into USA, meeting 2 friends in Niagara Falls, New York, then venturing to downtown Buffalo on a humid and stormy night.
The concert venue, located in the basement of a non-descript office building in the downtown core of Buffalo, is close to where the Sabres play in the winter. Venturing through a door on a dark corner of the building, we descended down a flight of stairs that led to a candlelit room. The room, which boasted a checkerboard floor, dark booths off to the side, and a simple bar that had an old film projector mounted on the wall behind the counter, oozed with ambience. It was also empty, as we were apparently the first ones to show up for the show, despite the fact that we were a few minutes late of the 9:00 pm start. While the lack of patrons made us feel a little awkward at first as the bar staff sheepishly watched us take a seat, it also gave me an opportunity to take in the experience, and watch the inner workings of an underground music show. I reclined into the darkness of the room, watching the venue staff and artists prepare for the night of music. Even though I went to the show with the full intention of documenting the night for this site, I deliberately took a non-aggressive approach, preferring instead to watch the artists from a perch on the wall rather than getting in their face and “interviewing” them. From my vantage point on the side of the room, I instantly spotted who I came to see. Wearing a faded red trucker hat, plaid shirt, blue jeans, and sporting a huge beard of flaming red hair shooting out from his chin, Castanets front-man Raymond Raposa was easily identifiable. In these early moments of the night, Raposa was seen dithering this way and that, his slight frame pacing the room in a hurried meter, only to disappear behind dark doors, re-emerging every few minutes. A drummer began lightly brushing quick strokes on the cymbals of the drum set on the stage, and other patrons slowly began to arrive. A burly sound man began to sound-check a microphone while small groups of mostly 20 something concert goers huddled around candlelit tables, speaking in hushed tones. The drummer was eventually joined by a simple looking man wearing glasses, and the slightly humorous sound check (“delaaaaay”) ceased. The man with the glasses picked up a guitar, and quietly announced, without microphone, that he and the drummer were I Heart Lung, from Los Angeles, California. More than one hour after I emerged into the Soundlab, the concert was beginning (being the concert rookie that I am, it seemed like everyone knew that 9 pm was merely the time the doors opened…most concert-goers arrived after 10 pm, during the set of I Heart Lung). The opening song of this duo established a number of things right away. Firstly, neither musician was stationed near a microphone; the band was an instrumental act. Secondly, as the cacophony of drums and guitars merged fluidly, the band quickly proved themselves to be a largely improvisational jazz-rock-math-??? band. Complex jazz rhythms merged with the angular guitar melodies (if melody is a proper term), creating a barrage of wonderfully expressive noise. The patrons enjoyed the experimental sounds, and I soon recognized that I was among friends here: if these people can honestly appreciate the atmospheric and cathartic sounds of this band, I knew I’d fit in nicely. The first song blended a dreamy melody with a surprisingly full sound, as the guitar player looped over his own playing with a pedal. The second song, a mellower, sparser, and more free form composition, showcased the drummer’s ability to play with respect to the space of silence, as the guitarist also noodled single tones over the drums. During this song, I noticed Raposa, sitting off in the corner at the make-shift merch table he shared with I Heart Lung. Though I appreciated (and was duly mesmerized) by the band’s music, I quickly remembered why I had driven to Buffalo, and decided to take this opportunity to test the waters of interaction with this man whose music had touched me so powerfully. His band’s <I>Cathedrals</I> is an amazing work of art, as spacious alt-country jams pour over quaking atmospheric sounds. This CD, allegedly recorded in an abandoned cabin in Northern California, so impressed me and my fellow Somewhere Cold writer that we named it to our annual Top 10 list in 2004. Possessing only a review copy from music label Asthmatic Kitty, I ventured over to the table with the goal of buying a real copy of <I>Cathedrals</I>, along with the gorgeous white tour-only 12” vinyl I spotted that features I Heart Lung and The Castanets. I walked over the lone and stoic-looking Raposa, not too sure of what to expect. In keeping with my non-obtrusive approach, I feigned not knowing exactly who Raposa was, “guessing” that he was in “one of the bands”. He enthusiastically spoke with me, lighting up as we spoke about Asthmatic Kitty, his current and successful tour, and the idea of perhaps setting up a Toronto show in the future. Raposa was disarming in his manner, and seemed genuinely appreciative of the fact that I had come to hear his music. After a short chit-chat, I bought my music and went to sit with my wife and friends.
I Heart Lung ended their set with a loud, bombastic composition that had both members of the duo pouring themselves into their instruments. The band definitely showed themselves to be a talented and unique duo, and interested listeners are able to download a free release from this band at Sounds Are Active. The band left the stage, announcing that The Castanets were coming up shortly. Raposa, joined by a young lady and man, began to arrange the various mics, pedals, and other gear to their liking for their set. I thought it interesting to watch the band struggle with setting up their equipment just so, wrestling with mic stands and cords, while other more popular bands simply hire technicians to do the same work. The young lady sat down, and pulled out what my friend called an “auto-harp”…a lap-sized contraption with what appeared to be almost like guitar strings on the top. At this point, my friend and I left our perch at the edge of the room and sat right in front (indeed, I was the closest person to Raposa throughout the set, sitting directly in front of the man as he played). And, while we were able to secure such great seats, and while I was watching intently as the band prepared, the Castanets’ set began without me even noticing. I thought the girl was tuning or doing a sound check with the auto-harp, yet before I knew it, the young man sat down at the drum set and began playing to her high pitched drone. The music had started! The beginning of the set was free form, as the two young musicians, faces sombre, set the stage with their intoxicating blend of whirring sounds and loose rhythm. Raposa, who by this time had set himself up right in front of me, a mess of pedals in front of him as he kneeled down on the stage, began to play his blue electric guitar, and in a voice that was as emotional and impactful as recorded on the CD, began to sing the familiar opening lines to “Three Days, Four Nights”. As with most of the songs throughout the set, “Three Days, Four Nights” was sparse, elongated, and eerie, as the musicians played through the song in an arrangement vastly different than the version on the CD (while retaining the spirit of the song). As the song ended in a whirling blend of noises, the band played free-form atmospheric music that totally drew me in. In fact, from the moment the girl (whose name I never got) began to play her strange instrument, I don’t think the music actually ever stopped; the band kept playing in between songs, linking them with short improvisational instrumentals. Even the moments of complete silence, which were rare, were used as instruments throughout the music, providing a masterful contrast to the moments where the band was playing full-tilt. One of my main regrets of the night is that I did not write down the set-list from the show, but I do remember such songs being played as “Cathedrals 2 (Your Feet On The Floor Sounding Like The Rain”) , in which Raposa mimicked the CD’s sax parts with his guitar, “You Are The Blood”, which showcased the background vocals of the young lady and man, and the vastly rearranged “Cathedral 4 (The Unbreaking Branch and Song)”. All of the songs were amazingly rendered to coincide with the drummer’s simple but perfect drumming (as a drummer myself it was fun to watch the drummer use just a few pieces: a snare with a tambourine on top, a couple of toms, a kick drum, and a ride cymbal, all mic’ed to give them just a touch of echo, to create such a perfect rhythm for the other two band members). And the young lady’s vocals were beautiful and haunting, her rich vocals perfectly fitting with the dark and sombre music. However, Raposa was no doubt the focus of the set. He spent most of the concert on his knees, just pouring himself into the songs and his guitar playing. With his bare feet he twiddled with pedal knobs as he sang into a microphone set so low that even as he kneeled, he had to crouch down to reach it. At times, he’d stare powerfully and defiantly to the back of the room as he song (this intense guy was the same soft-spoken and meek guy I spoke with before the set?), belting out his lyrics with conviction. At one point, during a song I’d never heard before, he got up, grabbed an unmic’ed acoustic guitar, and started to walk towards the audience as his bandmates kept playing. He sang while mingling amongst the surprised listeners, at one point hoisting the guitar across his shoulders while singing back to his bandmates. But, as strange as this may sound to the reader, none of Raposa’s behaviour seemed contrived. He wasn’t pulling a stunt to entertain people, but rather wanted to sing through them, and over them, bringing his message and emotion and passion right to the audience. In fact, the whole set, for me, reeked of an urgency in his music, lyrics, demeanour, and message. On that muggy night in Buffalo, NY, Raposa believed in his mission, at one point repeating over and over again “It’s alright to want more than this” (from “as “Cathedrals 2 (Your Feet On The Floor Sounding Like The Rain”). Without divinizing too much into the show, I garnered a distinct message from it, essentially summed up in those lines. It seemed to me that The Castanets were expressing the brokenness and frustration that people have in this world, eluding to the pain of broken relationships and general disharmony. While this was a loose theme for me (and I may be totally off of what the group was endeavouring to convey), The Castanets tied it all together beautifully (for me) with the immensely powerful “The Smallest Bones”, which begins with the mournful lines of “And my God, it’s an eternity waiting for Thee”. A song that talks about a general cancer seeping into the innermost core of all people, a song of weariness and yet resolute waiting, set over the band’s unique and spacious arrangement, was the perfect way to end the set. After the song-proper ended and he thanked “Upstate New York, Canada, and Lake Erie”, Raposa looped a guitar part on the pedal, and let it play while he knelt with his head bowed. The drummer softly began to remove elements from his already sparse drumming, while the young lady played a chimy and effected line over her auto-harp, over the repeating guitar line. Eventually, the music faded to silence, and after a few moments the audience realized that the set was done, and applauded enthusiastically.
To say that I enjoyed the set would be a gross understatement. I not only heard fascinating and beautiful music, but I also was personally deeply moved by the band’s performances, as well as the choice and sequencing of the songs and their lyrics. The Castanets totally poured themselves, mind, body, and soul, into the music, and the image of Raposa on his knees, strumming his guitar while squeezing out his emotion-laden vocals, is one that I will not forget soon. Coming into the show, I thought I’d like it. I thought I’d enjoy the music and go on. I figured the Castanets set would be a simple folk set with great songs. It turned out to be so much more! I’m assuming that not all independent music shows are this good and this impactful. Nevertheless, I must make an effort to get out to more shows!! Indeed, Raposa really turned Soundlab into a Cathedral of sorts for me. The experience was almost transcendent, with the spacey music, impassioned gestures, and numbing rhythms. Add in the religious imagery of the last song, and you end up with a sincerely spiritual experience, and for a few moments the band connected with the audience members in an exchange of emotion and feeling.
Alas, my ever-burgeoning life circumstances took over right after this set, and I became aware that I needed to get home and get some sleep in order to prepare for a busy day the next morning. As such, I sadly didn’t hear one note of the headliner Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice. But, while Raposa was taking down his gear, I walked up to him and thanked him, telling him his music was beautiful and letting him know I’ll email him about a future Toronto show. I didn’t mention a word about Somewhere Cold, staying true to my effort to remain unobtrusive. And in the end, I was not some self-proclaimed “music writer” attending a concert and taking bad pictures to simply cover an event…rather, I was welcomed as a brother, a roaming soul seeking peace, a music fan with an affinity for the extraordinary who was able to participate in a beautiful event where art touched the soul and expressed our longings as humans. This is what music should be about. I was blown away, and the sounds of the set still resonated in my ears and heart as I drove through the rain storms to the border. May God bless The Castanets. Please do yourself a favour and check out one of the remaining shows on the tour.