LIVE REVIEW: Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, September 29, 2009

My friend’s response to news I had scored a ticket to Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions’ ludicrously sold-out show at Hollywood Forever’s Masonic Lodge last Tuesday was “I thought Hope died of an OD.  Who knew?”

Who knew indeed?  On the heels of Bon Iver’s fawned-over early morning concert outdoors on Hollywood Forever’s cemetery grounds just a few days before, it seemed that lightning was striking twice:  a show helmed by the whispy voice perhaps best known as Ms. Mazzy Star, in the dim-lit confines of the infrequently used, church-like Masonic Lodge, was about as perfectly conceived formula for concert magic as any since — well, since Bon Iver played outdoors at the cemetery just a few days earlier.

But while attendees to the Bon Iver event were awoken after an all-night slumber party for the start that performance, Hope & company’s show had the exact opposite effect on this occasion.

To be clear, I’ve done a fair share of baby makin’ practice to the strains of Ms. Sandoval, be it accompanied by the lush, bluegaze alt-country-ish sounds of Mazzy Star or the 2001 Warm Inventions’ release, Bavarian Fruit Bread.  So it’s not like the lethargic qualities that define Sandoval’s music were hitherto unknown to me.  In fact, various one-off guest contributions aside, you could quantify anything she sings on as sort of an aural turducken:  sleepiness wrapped in slumber surrounded by a dream.  But sometimes too much of a good thing results in…an OD.

"Unlike Hope Sandoval, this frail, whimsical flower had no compunction about being photographed live."

"Unlike Hope Sandoval, this frail, whimsical flower had no compunction about being photographed live."

Things started well enough, with Sandoval & company taking the stage in near-darkness to the enthusiastic applause of KCRW Angel Donor-types who had patiently sat through a Warm Inventions-sans-Sandoval set while sipping wine and commenting on the elegance of the high-ceilinged, poorly ventilated venue.  With the stage lit by a few simple candles and the room chandeliers turned down low, the mood was set for the Warm Inventions, now armed with Sandoval, to unleash some serious baby makin’ soundtracks upon the crowd.

And at first it was good.

Then it went bad.

It’s hard to find fault with anything in the performance per se; as far as stage antics go, Sandoval has always run the risk of being outshone by a fire hydrant or telephone pole.  Which is to say, really what you’re watching when she performs is paint drying – but paint that sings with an intoxicating trademark voice.  So to say the performance was lacking, eh – lacking what?  It was never “having” to begin with.  It’s always been about the voice.

Assumedly as a compensatory measure, the set was accompanied throughout by film projections – primarily old-timey footage of people dancing, or flowers — which were blended together with other elements by multiple projectors in the balcony, providing sort of visual mash-ups, with the gentle fluttering sound of the film running through the projectors adding an extra element of romantic nostalgia to the experience.

But somewhere around the one-hour mark, that sound of the projectors went from charming to annoying – like candy wrappers at a movie theater – and simultaneously, the hall chairs became uncomfortable, the room became too warm, and the music — which thus far had primarily featured cuts from Hope & company’s latest, Through The Devil Softly — became monotonous.

And while it’s clear that the majority of those present remained as enamored as ever with Sandoval, more than a handful of people silently vacated the proceedings, never to be seen again.  Suddenly the hottest ticket in town became less elite, as empty seats pockmarked the room for the back half of the set and encore.

It’s not that HS&TWI’s set lacked dynamic.  Within its own parameters, the material swelled from whisper-silent to waves crashing on the shore (albeit small waves), and Sandoval, for her part, repeatedly added harmonica and glockenspiel to mix, which should have kept things fresh (truth be told, Hope rocks the glock like nobody’s business).  But really, all that delicate sweetness, in absence of well-conceived delivery devices, like say — better songs — left the effect of being adrift at sea during an inescapable case of the doldrums.  Sure, the sunsets are amazing at first, but eventually, you need the wind to pick up.  You know, so you can get your ass out of their and not like, die.

To that end, energy levels spiked during older numbers such as “Charlotte” and “Around My Smile,” but it was contextually apparent that wasn’t so much a result of those songs being more familiar as they are just altogether better songs than the newer material (play “Blanchard” against either of the two songs mentioned above and the point will be proven).  If fact, it leads one to wonder why it took eight years for HS&TWI eight years to issue a follow-up full-length to Bavarian Fruit Basket.  Clearly, that time wasn’t spent accumulating a mass of killer material to pick from for the new record.

Other show highlights were things that actually had nothing to do with the band, such as a roadie changing a candle on stage in the middle of a song, or fans snapping flash pictures of Hope at the encore break and show end, despite the dozen-plus signs posted around the premises that read “Absolutely NO Photography.”  And it’s hard to forget the couple in the balcony who got carried away with their own baby makin’ during the encore and accidentally turned the room lighting on full, which for Sandoval, must have been something like being immersed in scalding oil.

All in all, it wasn’t that the show was awful, say like Cat Power circa 1998, Ryan Adams circa 2002, or Coldplay in general.  But it did little to live up to the legacy Sandoval blazed with Mazzy Star, and generally left the impression that HS&TWI’s place in the current popular culture landscape is probably best relegated to a Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack or some similar, fleeting music supervisor-placed location, rather than a full evening’s proposition.

Yes, the sound of Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions is something best taken in small doses.

Like heroin.

Photo “in the Shadow of a Flower” by Hamed Saber under Creative Commons License

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