Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Elms: Convicted and forgiven in an instant

The Elms rocked the house last night at the Vogue in Indianapolis. I convict them of excellence; but they have such fun in what they do I forgive them too.

I had the chance to talk briefly with Owen Thomas before the show; be wary if you get the chance to do the same because the man is intense. Even running on a sleep deficit he was up for a detailed discussion of the creative process. I got to share my gratitude - the Elms is the first band whose music my kid likes (I was despairing that the kid might never develop musical taste until he found them). Owen spoke of the mental process a performer goes through to be ready to be in the moment on stage and how he struggles to set aside James-Brown style perfectionism to be happy in the moment of a performance. As much as I was swept away with the band's frolicing performance last night, I couldn't help but see how that intensity from Owen was playing out as well. He's balancing there during the performance, between neurosis and joy, pushing his bandmates to step up and play better and stronger, and they push right back. That's serious fun they're having in their rambunctious, melodic act.

The Elms' set started with "The Strut," headed strong over to "Unless God Appears First," and of course included the popular treat "Back in Indiana" from the Elm's discography. The boys from Seymour also picked up the most joyful version I'd ever heard of the hymn "I'll Fly Away." My personal favorite of their collection, "Nothing to Do with Love," finally came up after I'd been anticipating it through the whole set. A version of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" closed it out.

During a pause between songs, the audience began to clap out a rhythm; the Elms drummer Chris Thomas picked up the crowdsourced rhythm, built it into something more, was joined by Thom Daugherty then Nathan Bennett with Owen Thomas providing kinetic counterpoint all the while. The riff lasted less than a few minutes, and was astonishingly intense and authentic - and the ability of the players to gel together around what the crowd was giving and make it so much more was impressive.

My date had alerted me to keep an eye on the drummer's antics during the show, and he did not disappoint - while maintaining a certain reticence that is not unusual for a musician who's role is to hang out backstage, Chris Thomas pulled off many a visual prank for the audience's amusement. At least twice, I heard the crowd shouting out "CHRIIIIIISSSS!" which is probably the first time a drummer has been cheered with such enthusiasm during a performance. Second time if you count Florida A&M's marching band.

Front man Owen Thomas made a heartfelt plea to the crowd to be good to one another before launching into "This is How the World will end." (An acoustic recording from the Elms is available from Africa Water is Life.)

Thom Daugherty was first and last onstage; he came out to play a solo from a cover of Tom Petty's Free Falling with Green River Ordinance. I had the sense that he was so keen to play he had to get out there and do it (and notably Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is cited by the Elms as a major influence). At the end of the night, his chords were still ringing in my ears.

Most of the songs played were from their latest album, "The Great American Midrange." Opening for the Elms were Green River Ordinance and Henry French & The Shameless. GRO, kudos for your final acoustic play, it was solid - and HF&tS, thanks for your fun set. Note to the guitarist from GRO: my father in law called, and he wants his hat back.

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