Live Review: Doves at the Wiltern Theater, May 16 2009

Doves live at the Wiltern, Los Angeles, May 2009Once upon a time, just after the turn of the new century, two young U.K. rock bands crossed the ocean to tour the United States for the first time, supporting their full-length debuts together.*

The headlining band, which featured a goofy-looking singer with sharp blue eyes, was high on the success of an earnest and catchy single called “Yellow.”  An amateurish-yet-endearing video for the song helped secure the band an instant Yankee fanbase.

The opening band, on the other hand, was basically a three-piece helmed by two rather ordinary-looking brothers – unremarkable except for the fact that they were responsible for a critically hailed, near-perfect record called Lost Souls.

We all know how this story turns out.

Though both bands are now four albums into their respective careers, and both have ultimately come to be distributed by Capitol Records stateside, any additional similarities are difficult to identify.

Somewhere immediately after the release of the Joshua Tree-like ubiquity of A Rush Of Blood To The Head, Coldplay traded earnest for whimsical and started prancing about dressed as gay pirates.  It became apparent that singer Chris Martin’s unrealized threat of breaking the band up after the release of A Rush… was less a blessing than a curse when their next two records arrived more mundane, derivative and stillborn than each before it.  Nonetheless, mainstream acceptance persists.

Doves, on the other hand, have gone on to fly so far beneath the radar in the U.S. as to be committed to a flight path beneath Earth’s tectonic plates.  Other than to music supervisors and indie alternative radio, they’ve remained largely unheralded west of the Canary Islands.

So while Coldplay has graduated to playing The Enormodome in a city near you, when Doves rolled into town last weekend, they performed at the same venue as when they last played L.A. a few years ago.  At face, you could take that as evidence that Doves are treading water.

But you’d be wrong.

Perhaps it’s the lack of distraction that must come from banging has-been actresses and washing black marker off your arm every night, but the punch line here is that Doves, not the Pirates of Penzance, is the band that continues to achieve real growth with the arrival of each new album and subsequent tour – all the while lacking a de facto frontman, in a sense robbing themselves of the charisma storm and potential tabloid fodder that typically acts as the propellant for other bands’ success.

To that end, Doves’ current offering, Kingdom Of Rust, is something of a mixed bag – the sound of a band molting out of what was otherwise was in danger becoming a predictable formula consisting of Brit-rock atmospherics.  2005’s Some Cities – which yielded towering hooks wrapped in enough daring to stay original – showed the band at its best within that oeuvre, and was the logical conclusion to that phase of their career.  Kingdom Of Rust, in that sense, is less a departure than an evolution.

Taking the Wiltern’s stage Saturday night, an older, wiser and shorter-haired Doves demonstrated no sense of rivalry with their old touring pals for the supremacy of the high seas.  Right from the start, an energizing luge through “Jetstream,” which had been a so-so free download that heralded the arrival of Kingdom just over a month ago, through the encore-ender “There Goes The Fear,” Doves handily bested their previous laurels.

It wasn’t that brothers Jez and Andy Williams, along with bassist and primary vocalist Jimi Goodwin (all ably backed by Martin Rebelski on keys) so much delivered scorching performances as much as they simply maximized each song’s live potential.  In this setting, newer numbers from Kingdom Of Rust (including the countrified title track and especially “The Outsiders”) suffered no risk of being overwhelmed by older, near-iconic songs such as “Pounding,” “Words,” “Snowden,” or “Almost Forgot Myself.”  Contextually speaking, the “new stuff” shone brighter than on album and as brightly as anything else they’ve done in concert previously.

Doves albums, particularly the first two, tend to lean on varied and layered production that bookend songs in a way that create scenarios rather than just collections of music.  But on this night, even with the keys re-creating much of that album-dominant ambiance, the band sounded spare and loose – free, if anything, of whatever crutches track production might have created in the recording process.

Throughout, the now-standard Doves non-sequitur projections of city and landscapes merging with grainy abstractions fleshed out the experience, providing a means of traveling with the band throughout their night’s journey.  Exceptions came in notable, more defined short films on two occasions – the first during the show highlight “Black And White Town,” recalling Harmony Korine’s Kids — were the film to inhabit the same British world as Tim Roth’s The War Zone or Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, and then be edited with Disney’s conservative hand.  The second, during “There Goes The Fear,” was a passive/aggressive piece juxtaposing a victim of modern-day anxiety against lush images of swimming girls and a boy in a field of dandelion fluff — nothing less than an articulate reminder that we are more than the sum of our careers and relationships, should we choose to be.  It didn’t hurt that Doves took the song on a musical detour at its conclusion, suddenly grafting a Latin-inspired Carnivale jam onto it (complete with the appropriate drums and bells) to literally end the night on a positive note.

At first glance that might seem to be an incongruity, because much of Doves’ catalogue adds up in the mind as a series of dark affairs, but in truth, and especially on this occasion, the vibe was overwhelmingly upbeat.  If darkness permeates, it’s without the expected melancholy or anomie that accompanies so much of the music of Doves’ contemporaries.  Then again, that could simply could be tied to the fact that when Goodwin opens his mouth, the resulting sound is that of someone who actually has something to say, rather than the Jeff Buckley-inspired preening wail that was de rigueur in the mid-90s and early Oughties from the likes of Travis, Muse, Turin Brakes, Radiohead and the aforementioned captain of the H.M.S. Paltrow.

Even the somewhat unexpected inclusion of “Ambition” didn’t act as much as a downer as it was a signpost marking the start last part of the set, which ultimately concluded with Jez Williams trading his electric guitar for an acoustic one to lead the way through a rousing “Caught By The River.”

There was no questioning the crowd’s enthusiasm to this point (for which Goodwin and company seemed sincerely appreciative) and the show probably could have ended right then had the band believed in quitting while being ahead.
  But Doves rolled out an encore nonetheless, starting with their signature “Firesuite” – the lead track off Lost Souls (a well-known number despite being an instrumental; the song’s yearning, nautical texture suitably earned it placement in two popular surfing movies:  2002’s Blue Crush and 2004’s Riding Giants — though oddly, unlike their old tour mates, Doves to date have managed to refrain from dressing as graduates of the YMCA’s Naval Academy).  From there, they escalated into the familiar “Here It Comes,” the second track off that same album, and one where Goodwin and drummer Williams traded places, with Williams taking center stage to provide vocals and some serious harmonica while Goodwin kept time on the drums and sang the choruses.

Earlier in the night, Goodwin had spied a couple making out in the balcony of the Wiltern and went on to say how Doves events historically have brought lovers together, jokingly adding that by contrast, the band were “all trainwrecks in [their] relationships.”  Still, it’s not hard to see to see the appeal.  Like all the best relationships, the music of Doves swings from subtle to soaring, elemental yet woven with a common thread.  And while Coldplay’s legacy (the current sum effect of which is rendering jittery yuppies and soccer moms docile as they wait in line at Starbucks for their daily dosage of overpriced caffeine), is guaranteed, it’s not inconceivable that given the course Doves have charted thus far, their near-future efforts might yield an album along the lines of Who’s Next, OK Computer, 13, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Loveless or Achtung Baby.

Anchors aweigh.


*Note: Doves and Coldplay were slated to play only one show together in the U.S.  Doves’ first show would have been supporting Coldplay in Miami, who canceled due to a Chris Martin illness.  Coldplay had already played a handful of shows on the West Coast before the Miami show date.  Doves played the Miami date before engaging in an East Coast trek of their own, Coldplay-free.

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