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Pop music review: KCRW's 'Are Friends Eclectic?'

December 4, 2011 |  6:58 pm

The FM station’s annual holiday show indeed featured a wide range of entertaining acts, but there were a few stylistic gaps.

Zee-awi-at-kcrw-benefit
Are friends eclectic?

Yes. The answer to the question posed in the title of KCRW’s holiday show is a definite, though qualified, affirmative. The 10 artists crammed into five hours at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday night included a young Malaysian folksinger (Zee Avi), a historic reggae crooner (Jimmy Cliff) and a flamenco-blues guitar heroine (Anna Calvi).

You’d expect to find a few bad apples in such a mixed bag. But even those acts relegated to playing short acoustic sets in front of the curtain while full bands plugged in behind played as if their careers hinged on it. After all, as several musicians acknowledged onstage, KCRW-FM (89.9) has a history of breaking new acts.

"It feels like ‘The Gong Show,’" singer-guitarist Barbara Gruska joked as she and her four bandmates in the Belle Brigade lined up before the scrim. The awkward setting did not stop the young L.A.-based country-rock group from singing and playing their hearts out. Gruska’s strong tones anchored her brother Ethan’s sweet strains as they toasted the virtues of being uncool in a rendition of "Losers" that seemed like the night’s breakout, take-away moment. Until there came another, and another, and another.

Being uncool was cool at "Are Friends Eclectic?" The event’s lovable hometown hero was the big, goofy-looking redhead Brett Dennen. "Everybody loves the underdog," sang the Santa Monican Jack Johnson in his nasal falsetto, proving it by drawing (or rather, being granted) the only encore of the night. Rock-star poses and high jinks were checked at the stage door -- except, perhaps, for Cliff’s shiny wardrobe (and the Jamaican star of "The Harder They Come" has certainly earned his glamour). Short, direct sets emphasized musicianship and composition, drawing on traditions of troubadours, jam bands and what we might call folk-pop bel canto.

Jimmy-cliffSo many people sang so beautifully. Mia Doi Todd set the tone by laying notes like jewels in her opening cover of the Brazilian classic "Canto de Lemanjá." The night ended with Cliff and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam joining their aching high tenors. The duet of a 1970s reggae legend and a 21st century indie-rock songwriter seems unlikely on paper but worked like a, well, song once Beam began gently singing "Johnny Too Bad." With his long beard, black jacket, and impeccably mellow demeanor, Beam comes across as a man of the cloth, and he phrased the song’s gospel query just right. Cliff clutched the cordless mike like a talisman, his Sam Cooke-esque tones undamaged by time.

From the charming Southern harmonies of the Secret Sisters to Zee Avi’s Melanie-esque Morrissey cover, the evening honored women’s voices as well as men’s. But the show, named after KCRW’s popular program "Morning Becomes Eclectic," was not all-inclusive. There was no hip-hop, electronic dance music (though that genre does get played on several KCRW shows), punk, metal, salsa, norteño, etc. The paucity of Latin beats and voices seemed particularly problematic given the city this NPR station serves.

Eclectic, yes; demographically representational, no. I don’t mean this to detract from the virtues of a great night of music. But imagine a show next year, with War in Cliff’s place as the éminence grise, and rhythmic complexity added to the musical mix.

RELATED:

KCRW-FM's December benefit concert plans scaled back to one night

Live review: Iggy, Stooges stay in attack mode

Live: Morrissey at the Shrine Auditorium

-- Evelyn McDonnell

Photo: Zee Avi performs (top); and Jimmy Cliff sings to the crowd. Credit: Jeremiah Garcia / www.IndieWrecked.com

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