LIVE REVIEW: Chad VanGaalen at Spaceland, March 28th

Canadian musician, animator and tinker Chad VanGaalen returned to Los Angeles last Saturday for a performance at Spaceland.

Unfortunately, not all of his gear returned with him.

Handicapped by a loss of equipment — apparently seized at the airport during his international trip to L.A. from The Great White North — VanGaalen’s set was late in starting and, compensating for missing gear, a bit rough around the edges.  On the plus side, it didn’t matter that much.

Gellin' with VanGaalen at Spaceland (photo by the author).

Gellin' with VanGaalen at Spaceland (photo by the author).

Making up in spontaneity for what he was apologetically unable to salvage of his pre-planned set, VanGaalen led an adoring Spaceland crowd through a trek that leaned heavily on his latest album, Soft Airplane, though he was sure to visit previous releases as well, including his much-regarded Infiniheart – initially a homemade release which Sub Pop caught wind of and unleashed upon the world, rescuing VanGaalen from the resident-genius-indulgently-toiling-in-obscurity life that he probably preferred.

VanGaalen possesses a cloud-like voice not unlike fellow Canadian Neil Young, which pairs well with simply strummed songs.  And while sticking him in the singer/songwriter pigeonhole makes a lot of sense, it’s VanGaalen’s Beck-like approach to the rest of his wares that sets him apart from the ubiquity of that crowd.  Though mostly lacking from this night’s performance (see above: missing gear) much of VanGaalen’s catalogue is steeped in sonic explorations seemingly fit for test tubes and Petri dishes.  Further still, VanGaalen’s lyrical content frequently references death to the point of being downright grisly — made all the more arousing given the gentle musical landscape those words often occupy.  In the end, his material resides on a pendulum which sways between the mild-mannered and absurd, which if nothing else, shows his creative force isn’t limited by a presumed idiom.

Saturday, however, found VanGaalen abroad elsewhere, charting power trio territory along with his drummer and (Women) bassist Mathew Flegel.  They occupied the set with a number of sloppy-but-fun renditions, though it caught them at one point when they had to stop a song so VanGaalen could re-teach Flegel his parts.  “Give us a break,” VanGaalen laughed.  “I haven’t jammed with these guys for weeks.”

In truth, VanGaalen’s affable personality and humorous anecdotes made it easy to forgive any shortcomings apparent in his performance.  While critical or apathetic concerns of Los Angeles crowds are normally a given, Spaceland patrons seemed to be rooting for him in a way normally reserved for neighborhood kids at a talent show.  Smiles were all around throughout the night, especially when VanGaalen asked “why can’t you just make a snow-something?” after describing how he and his daughter abandoned a snowman they were building earlier that day.

Sadly absent from the set were two of VanGaalen’s best in the forms of “Dead Ends” and “Flower Gardens” — the latter being an aggressive, itchy sweater of a tune that would have fit perfectly with his trio delivery on this occasion.  However, a truly creepy take on “Molten Fire” (a tale of revenge Nick Cave would wet-dream of writing, with its less-than-subtle refrain of “I’ll find you and I’ll kill you”) more than made up for any omissions.  By night’s end, if there were any VanGaalen supporters disappointed with the outcome of the show, they were impossible to detect.

Unless you count the missing gear.

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