Akron/Family, The Dodos,

Natural History Museum First Fridays

May 2, 2008

By Mark Mauer

For the past couple of years, one of the best venues in town to see excellent live music has been the Natural History Museum. The Submarines, Plaid, Deerhoof, Matmos and others have played sets in the NHM's “Large Mammal” over the past year or so with the backdrop of bears, wolves and walruses.

It pains me to say that I'm afraid that First Fridays have jumped the oarfish.

(Oarfish image from here. The NHM has an excellent specimen caught off of Catalina Island in 2006, but my camera broke before i could get a picture of it.)

Like some of the coolest things in LA, the First Fridays event got too popular, too crowded, and now it's more of a hassle than it is fun (See the mess that the movie showings at Hollywood Forever have turned into).

The Dodos meet the buffaloes.

The evening started off promising. I almost always miss the first part of First Fridays, which is a lecture and Q&A with a scientist. This time, I got there in time to see at least the last chunk of Dr. Leah Krubitzer's talk about how evolution builds a complex brain. Our senses act as filters to the brain, and those filters are key in how our brain develops – not only over the long-term of evolution, but even in the short-term of a single life-span. Remove the hearing of a mouse before its brain develops and its entire cognitive map ends up looking different than that of a mouse that can hear.

(He is not the walrus)

Hundreds of people filled the room who were really into this topic. These are the people who loved field trips in school not because you could sneak off for a couple hours with your friends or just get out of class, but because you were going to learn something.

My brain freshly remapped from the lecture, we went to the large room to see the Dodos' set. Rena Kosnett reviewed their record in LA Weekly recently here. Walking into the room I noticed there were “official” looking people with “counters” clicking. But I walked in with no problem.

(Dancing to the Dodos)

The Dodos sounded great. Acoustic guitar, looped vocals from everyone on stage and two percussionists made a wonderful racket amidst sharp pop hooks. The double POUND POUND rhythms that punctuated the crescendos in most of the songs fit wonderfully the backdrop of frozen-in-time animals. But let's talk for a second about front-men who don't stand during their shows. Unless you are a 70+ year old blues singer, you better stand up. The stage at the Museum is not high, so unless you're right in front, you couldn't see much beyond an occasional head and – once – a trombone, which was a nice switch-up.

The room wasn't crowded, but apparently we'd reached some sort of capacity. Right outside the hall, there were more than a hundred people waiting to get into the hall and see the show! They'd paid their cover (which has gone up a lot this year – though still a relative bargain at $9 a head), gotten their drinks, and then had to get into a line which didn't move. No one was leaving during the Dodos' set, so no one else was let in. My friends finally got in to see the last three songs. Now between bands, we were faced with a dilemma: Stay in that hall until Akron/Family played, or go out, wander around, get a beer or some wine and risk not getting back into the hall to see the main group.

The decision to get drinks won out, though the beer was warm. Sure enough, when Akron/Family started the line stretched out like mad around two or three corners. We stood in the main hall and watched the show projected on the walls.

On the plus side, there is now a dinosaur that walks around the Museum, right behind a guy that yells, “Make way for the dinosaur!” every time they turn a corner.

Akron/Family is about as freak-folk as they come. I've liked their records since M. Gira at Young God started emailing about how incredible they are, and I do like the music they make, especially when they work directly with Gira.

(Akron/Family play the wall)

Left to their own devices though, Akron/Family can verge straight into jam-band-land. And that's pretty much what their set sounded like from the central lobby I was stuck in. Speakers were set up as well as a couple of live projections of the band from the big hall, but watching live music on big projectors is an awful thing, no matter if it's the Stones at Dodger Stadium or Prince at Coachella.

Eventually the crowd thinned out enough that they did away with the restricted access and let people come and go. A quick duck in and I saw a circle of hippie dancing had formed in the center of the room, and inexplicably, no one was doing anything to put a stop to it.

Despite good music programming and interesting lecture topics, the elephant in the room is that the popularity of the Museum's First Friday events are making it a lot less enjoyable than it used to be.

Next month's event will feature music from Mountain Goats and The Annuals. Craig Stanford will talk about parallel evolution of apes and dolphins, and what it means to us. More info here.

Photos and text by Mark Mauer

LA Weekly