This was a strange show. No really -- it just seemed surreal to me. First of all, The Above Bookstore is, well, whatever the bookstore/coffee shop equivalent of a "dive" is. A dump maybe? Let me try and describe it and see if you can picture the place:
There are simple plywood schelves perpendicular to most of the walls. Old battered books line these schelves in no discernable order. There are also piles (not stacks) of books in front of each schelf. The schelves line the walls of a large room, and they define a largish open space. In this space are a couple of older couches, a few plush comfy chairs, a few tables, and too many chairs. Way too many. It was hard to move around for all of the damn empty chairs. Perhaps this is because one half of the open space was occupied by musical gear, but still -- chair saturation had been achieved.
In the back of the place is a coffee bar. They have a few baked items and your standard coffee shop fair. The coffee was unremarkable -- neither good nor bad. The baked items looked old and scary, as they do towards the end of the day at any coffee shop.
Oh, and did i mention that half of the bar and a few of the available tables were covered with partially assembled Macs. (You know, they're kind of like a PC except not? Yeah, those things.) All over the place. Apparently the bookstore shares space with a Mac repair business....
As to the soundsystem in the place -- there wasn't really one. An employee brought up a small mixing box and a few speakers as the bands set up. He sort of stacked them against the corner. A few minutes were spent on "level checking" the various instruments, and that was it.
So that's the "venue" (and i use this term loosely here) for this show. Did i mention that it is located an hour and a half from my home? That's either close or far, depending on how you look at it. I found that it was far when it was midnight and i still had an hour to drive until i could get to my bed....
Into this environment i ventured to see Isobella. Why, you ask? Why go through all of that trouble just for a band?
Well, in all honesty Isobella released the best album i heard last year. It's called Akasha and it is a wonderful swirly dreamy mess of guitars and muttered vocals. Since falling in love with that album i have heard two more tracks on some compilations, a few "rough mixes" of new material on their website, and seen them in concert once. Their recorded music continues to impress me. On this tour Isobella were debuting material from their soon to be released new album. I was looking forward to hearing the new stuff. Also, that last live show suffered from atrocious sound, and i really wanted to see a live show with great sound.
This was not destined to be it, and i realized this as soon as i walked in and saw no sound system.... sigh. Maybe someday.
So the sound was pretty bad at this place. Basically, Shane, one of the guitarists in Isobella, plays a lot of loud fuzzy guitar on their new material. And when he stomped on his fuzz pedal it drowned out all of the other instruments and voices. I like his guitarwork, so it was interesting to see, but i really would have liked to have heard the whole band.
So, saddled with poor sound once again, Isobella confidently strolled through 45 minutes or so of their music. A new song called (i later learned) Broken Verbs built from a nice simple rhythm into a fuzzy mess of guitar very very nicely. And they played Sun In Her Eyes for me, Shane embarressed to make his live vocal debut.
On the whole, i enjoyed the set. I had to strain to hear things other than the lead guitar, but i still enjoyed it. Then again, i like their music to begin with. Someone not as familiar might not have been as impressed.
After Isobella played, Shoes And Rider took the stage. Well, they set up in the corner. They are a four piece with a drum kit. Yeah, a drum kit in a room about 20 square feet that is mostly filled with books and chairs. I saw them set that up and thought "I have GOT to go buy some earplugs!" Aside from the drumkit, they feature a guitarist/vocalist, a cellist/bassist, and a keyboardist.
ASIDE: What is it with "the cello" anymore? Are music schools just cranking out so many cellists that the market is flooded and these people now need to find work in the Rock Industry? I swear, ten years ago i could count the number of bands with a cellist on, well, on NO hands because there weren't any. Now you can't spit in an Indie Rock Club without hitting somone whose band features a cellist. Why is that? I am not complaining (i love the sound of the instrument, really i do), but i find it odd that suddenly all of these bands have cellists, whereas 10 years ago there were none!
Shoes And Rider were LOUD. I mean, the drums were loud. Cellos are pretty loud too. However, the guitarist apparently thought that he needed to be louder than the cello, so he was turned up godawful loud. I'm talking serious volume here.
They were also quite good. Standard mellowish post-rock songs that ebbed and flowed. The voice was mixed too high (his voice needed to buried in the mix more), but when the instrumentation flowed up around the voice everything sounded great. However, the cello was overpowered by the guitar, and when the guitarist turned on his distortion (which was 75% of the show) i couldn't hear the keyboards at all. It was a guitar and drum mix, but the general spirit of their songs was conveyed. Also, i got a sense of the melodic interplay (between guitar, voice, cello, and keyboards) that their songs are made up of.
On the whole i guess i was disappointed with the evening. Oh sure, i had a lot of fun. I talked with various band members and heard some music that i really enjoyed. But i really would have liked to see both bands in a more professional environment. I feel dirty for saying that. Like i am betraying the Spirit of Indie Rock and will be punished for blasphemy. But it's true -- i want a certain degree of professionalism and, well, competence, out of a venue. You don't have to be The House Of Blues with a $5,000,000 sound system and bouncers, but at least TRY and make things sound good.
Is that too much to ask?
So my verdict -- listen to or go see both Isobella and Shoes And Rider if you get the chance. Both are talented bands. Avoid The Above Bookstore for shows unless you have no other choice. Their coffee is okay though.