Cabeza de Vaca Orchestra presents Sunrise
Jimi Cabeza de Vaca (yes, that is his real name) got his start playing keyboards over ten years ago with South Bay indie rockers dios. His ethereal keyboard contributions pushed the band to the brink of stardom, opening for acts like Grandaddy and Morrisey. Since then, Cabeza de Vaca has immersed himself in the desert-swept weird of Cal Arts, emerging as a preeminent instrumental voice in the world of panic-attack inducing sound collages. Last night, Cabeza de Vaca introduced a sound closer to his rocker days, offering a live score to the 1927 F.W. Muranua classic Sunrise that was both intense and melodic.
Why Sunrise? Cabeza de Vaca's response is unexpectedly romantic. “After watching and researching silent films, I've found that Murnau makes a beautiful film. Faust is really great and we had done that a bunch of times but Sunrise is just a beautiful movie. It's got a lot of magic moments. I wanted to do a love story. Something that isn't so in-your-face.”
The film opened with a stirring, single guitar line that hovered between Neil Young's swampy noodling for the Dead Man soundtrack and a strange almost Mediterranean-indebted acoustic vibe. The nine-piece band, which featured three guitarists (Cabeza de Vaca, Josh Gerowitz and Dani Tull), provided an ambient swell that matched Murnau's moody and fog-ridden landscape. All the while, upright bassist Brendan Carn held down a free-jazz wandering that buzzed like a hive of bees while electric bassist Scott Bassman drew a more Serge Gainsbourg vibe, jumping through high register riffs as the rest of the orchestra huddled in drone.
Peppered throughout the more soaring moments of the film in a sort of repeating chorus were the vocals of Nora Keyes. Keyes, who has been one of the most consistent performers with the Orchestra (she and Cabeza de Vaca will be opening for Lavender Diamond on Monday under the name Ssevenss.) added a ghostly quality to prepared tunes that she had written. Her high, quavering voice echoed Nico in the midst of Cabeza de Vaca's Velvet Underground-churn. Keyes' opportunities burst with a harmony and clear melodic purpose that was less prominent in Cabeza de Vaca's previous outings.
The orchestra then built to a fifteen-minute turmoil under the weight of Rich Polysorbate's clattering drums, providing ample room for him to smash his makeshift kit. The orchestra provided a relentless drone that was a strangely poetic match to the onscreen images of a loose pig and a reconciling hero and heroine.
It is not easy playing for an uninterrupted hour and half and this is the most fully-formed performance from Cabeza de Vaca's roving gang of musicians yet. He has assembled an elastic ensemble that flows naturally through each relevant emotion and they have formed a cohesive sound that works whether supporting the romance or horror of silent film. With each new film added to his repertoire, Cabeza de Vaca digs deeper into a realm of obscurity yet manages to re-surface with a more honed and engaging cinematic experience.
Personal Bias: I've been hearing the Cabeza de Vaca Orchestra since it was the Cabeza de Vaca Arcestra. I prefer the old name.
The Crowd: Extremely quiet beards.
Random Notebook Dump: The Downtown Independent is a gem on a strange strip of Main Street. Their adventurous programming and booze license make them a prime date spot in a once-thriving theatrical neighborhood.