LIVE REVIEW: Tindersticks at Henry Fonda Theater, Friday the 13th of March

Nick Cave in slow motion, sans Gothic fire and brimstone.  Leonard Cohen were he a European sophisticate.  Scott Walker had he the benefit of a little soul.

While any of these descriptions are perfectly serviceable boarding passes when describing Tindersticks to the uninitiated, they’re all completely wrong.  Last Friday the 13th, Tindersticks proved in performance they are nothing less musically than the sound of the conscience confronting the heart — and the episode of whiplash which ensues.

Highly flammable: Tindersticks at the Fonda (photo by author).

Highly flammable: Tindersticks at the Fonda (photo by author).

Tindersticks helmsman Stuart Staples led his six comrades through what almost instantly revealed itself to be an extraordinary occasion.  Wielding guitars, drums, bass, keys, vibes, cello and various horns, Tindersticks repeatedly transcended their recorded works with flawless and improved renditions of songs that didn’t really require any improving to begin with.  Each subsequent performance built upon the one before until it seemed an impossible, insurmountable zenith had been achieved.

And then Tindersticks said the hell with that and kept going anyway.

Tindersticks are very much a coffee-and-cigarettes kind of band, and to that end, Staples is every bit the anti-frontman you would expect from someone who doesn’t so much sing as reluctantly surrender each syllable from his mouth in a matter-of-fact, near-sexless croon.  Still, he’s hypnotic to watch, occasionally stepping off the mic to bust some dance moves, which, in the tradition of the late George Burns, are simultaneously austere and goofy — yet contextually perfect.

Every bit Staples’ counterparts, the rest of the Tindersticks look more like fearsome heavies from a British gangster flick than the journeymen musicians they are.  And yet, together they invoke arrangements that are at once tender and confident fusillades ranging from jazzy meditations and classical orchestrations to ‘60s AM radio soul sprees and spare torch songs, all of which are so acutely realized that there is quite literally nothing to be found wanting within their framework.  As a whole, it would be easy to classify Tindersticks’ music as cinematic in scope, but the simple fact of the matter is no one makes films worthy of their music* — especially not on this night.

Now, there are lapsed Jews and lapsed Catholics, lapsed vegetarians and lately, lapsed Republicans.  Myself, I’m a lapsed Tindersticks fan.  Of course I didn’t set out to be, but like the day my vegansexual roommate ate regular ice cream instead of soy, it just sort of happened.  I’ll argue I can hardly be faulted for not consuming every last damn release by a relatively obscure British band that’s been in the game almost 20 years – and to that end, I suppose I believed whether or not I was up to date on them and whether or not I owned their latest offering was of little issue.

Apparently, so did the rest of Los Angeles, for Friday’s show was set up and advertised as a seated-only affair in the wake of poor ticket sales (after the concert, a band member referred to the seated configuration as “bizarre” and “unusual” for them).

The seats-only set-up proved to be a misstep as a baby throng besieged the box office at show time, resulting in a generous amount of patrons attempting to make the best of it by horseshoeing along the back and sides of the theater and standing for the duration.  This looked particularly painful for a substantial contingent of the audience, who can best be described as likely NPR Angel donors, many of whom probably thought Nic Harcourt’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show was actually diverse, and who most definitely were expecting to have been seated for their entertainment.

In what must certainly be a rarity if not a first in terms of set list planning, things started off with the less-than-coincidentally titled instrumental “Introduction” from Tindersticks newest child The Hungry Saw, after which the group mowed through the next six numbers from that album.  A mid-set detour followed, wherein a pair of indulgences from Staples’ solo efforts were presented along with three older band songs (including “Sleepy Song” and “She’s Gone,” both from their widely hailed 1995 album Tindersticks, not to be confused with their less-hailed 1993 album also called Tindersticks).  Promptly resuming their presentation of The Hungry Saw in its chronological entirety, Tindersticks closed out the set  to the first of three standing ovations (though to be fair, half the crowd had no choice but to ovate while standing, since their advertised seats were nowhere to be found).

During the course of the show, Staples seemed increasingly at odds with an audience who loosened their appreciation upon the group with growing frequency between and during songs.  His banter was limited to a few murmured “thank you”’s and a not entirely kidding “shut up” when the crowd lavished sentiments upon the band during a slightly longer than normal pause between numbers early on.  Were it not for some mysterious feedback that forced the group to prematurely abandon a song mid-set, prompting an apology from Staples, you might have been left with the impression that he didn’t actually know how to speak more than a few words at a time.  However, by the time the band reached the back half of the set, it was clear that something had been unleashed in the audience, which in turn fueled the band to unlikely heights, disarming Staples of his curmudgeonly ways.

In particular, “Mother Dear,” which in recorded form seems more a sketch than a composition, was responsible for the escalation of the proceedings from already wonderful to near-majestic.  Something about the itinerant punctuations of guitar against the song’s tranquil, hymn-like tone, with Staples’ vocal façade occasionally cracking — as if to underscore the depth of the emotional territories he was charting — triggered the audience to abandon behaviors traditionally reserved for seated events like this one.

Reasonable list of things very unlikely to happen at a seated Tindersticks’ concert in the U.S. (and yet, which did):

  1. Drunken patron staggering from the rear of the theater to the fore, sloshing his beverage and inciting other patrons to get off their asses and join him at the front of the stage to worship the band en masse, nearly succeeding before being ejected by security
  2. Woman in red, engaging in Salome-like dance, slinking up the center aisle toward the stage in time to the music, then employing various gestures to announce the presence of her bosom to the band before receding back to whence she came (unconfirmed reports state that actual tit was revealed to said band)
  3. Stuart Staples smiling as if it were possible he was actually enjoying himself
  4. Additional patrons advancing on the stage, heedless of security and their drunken compatriot’s dismissal, taking advantage of the vast pasture of empty floor with various forms of dance through end of show

Such was the furor of the audience’s demand for more Tindersticks by night’s end, you would have thought the house was sold-out rather than thinly populated.  In response, the band did not disappoint, running through one and then a second encore, neither of which were included in their original set list.  By the time the familiar vibraphone riff of “My Sister” came over the P.A., the curtains had been loosened from the side of the stage and band had been threatened with the house curfew by a crew member.  Still, Tindersticks carried on, Staples and company delivering the noir-ish narrative to completion before calling it a night.

After the show, patrons lingered on the sidewalk in front of the Fonda, not so much smoking and waiting for cabs as reluctantly coming to terms with the fact that they had to leave the scene of what was a singular and unforgettable concert experience.

In a time when cruel realities are shining the most unforgiving lights upon our hoped-for dreams, there is no unrealized painting, no incomplete portfolio, no unattended manuscript nor half-finished cocktail napkin verse which can do without the Tindersticks.

*Tindersticks have in fact provided the scores to two films by Claire Denis, but any snotty music supervisor in L.A. will tell you a score is not the same thing as a soundtrack.

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