Califone – Live @ The Beachland Ballroom

Califone – Live @ The Beachland Ballroom

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This review could go in two directions right off the bat. The first is an endlessly fawning, sycophantic love letter to Califone and the years of enjoyment they’ve provided and how it has culminated in the movie and album All My Friends Are Funeral Singers. The second is an angry, frothing diatribe, scolding people for not showing Califone the proper appreciation for years of consistently superb and unique glitchy, rickety folk. As you will soon be able to tell, the review will head in the former direction, but here’s a sample of what the latter may look like:

What the fuck? Seriously, what the fuck does it take? Roots & Crowns, Califone’s most recent LP prior to All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, was the most successful of their career, and yet there was still enough room in the audience at their Beachland Ballroom performance to hold several concurrent break dancing tournaments. I have never been in a packed Califone audience and that’s a goddamn travesty. Pick up any of their albums (seriously, any of them) and try and tell me that there is any band with such a singular sense of Americana’s past, present, and future. Jesus.

Okay, on to the more positive approach. Califone’s current tour necessitates a little explanation. Front man Tim Rutili has written and directed a movie called All My Friends Are Funeral Singers about a psychic woman (Angela Bettis) living in a house populated by largely friendly ghosts including a bride, a mute young girl, and a blind blues band (Califone). Fans lucky enough to catch Califone on this tour will not only get to see the movie prior to its release, but will also witness Califone providing a live score.

Now, I would drive a not inconsiderable distance to see Califone play anything, and I was excited about the idea of watching Califone soundtrack a film in person, but I have to confess to a little concern regarding the quality of the movie being shown. Tim Rutili’s oblique lyrics work beautifully in the context of Califone’s moody compositions, but I could only imagine that, as a screenwriter and director, that same devotion to obfuscation would lead to a somewhat incomprehensible movie.

I’m happy to report how wrong I was. All My Friends Are Funeral Singers works in a lot of the same ways that Califone’s music works. The film is more than a little eerie while simultaneously rather touching. It’s clever without seeming too impressed with its own artifice, and it’s exploratory without drifting into a focus-less pretentious haze. The plot, which I won’t delve into any further here lest I spoil some of the mystery, does manage to maintain the audience’s attention without artificially adding superfluous conflict. And given Rutili’s trademark cryptic lyricism, it’s surprising what a sharp ear he has for dialogue. Less surprising, given his impressionistic poeticism, is his knack for striking visuals. In short, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers is a beautiful film, full of morbid wit and bittersweet pathos

Watching the band provide a live score was predictably captivating, even if the Beachland Ballroom’s lack of a built-in screen meant placing a freestanding one at the front of the stage and forcing the band to watch the movie backwards (as in “mirrored,” not “from the end to the beginning”). Califone only performed two songs from the album All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, generally opting for spooky atmospherics and the occasional bout of harsh clangor, but “Funeral Singers” took on a particularly poignant air when combined with the film’s touching climax.

As though the movie and score weren’t enough to justify the ticket price, Califone stuck around after the movie to play another hour’s worth of material and even holding an impromptu Q&A about the film when drummer Joe Adamik’s equipment temporarily failed him. The post-film set ranged from gorgeous (“The Orchids,” “Michigan Girls”) to sloppy (a cover of the Kinks’ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone”) to gorgeous and sloppy (“Spider’s House”), ending the night on a pitch-perfect intimate note.

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