I’ll be honest, I was a bit under whelmed by a few of the performances during the KEXP Yule Benefit this past Saturday night (12/8). The 5th annual installment of the holiday show took place at the Showbox after three consecutive years of being held at Neumos; and frankly, the venue might have been a bit too large for the lineup the listener-powered radio station chose to feature. Either that, or they botched it by not booking Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings (who sold out up the hill at Neumos the same night). And for all the brazen self-promotion listener-powered KEXP continuously doles out over the airwaves (seriously, do they have to push Live At KEXP during every freakin’ airbreak?), you’d think they could at least drum up a bigger headliner.
This was the fourth consecutive Yule Benefit I had attended, and it was definitely not up to par with the previous editions: last year it was Junior Boys, Ghostland Observatory, Cold War Kids, and Ted Leo busting it up; in 2005 it was the Wrens, Okkervil River, and Pretty Girls Make Graves rocking it out; and in 2004 it was Earlimart opening for then-buzz band Arcade Fire, which still remains one of the best shows I’ve ever witnessed. One more complaint: I like dude-rock as much as the next guy, but out of four total bands, not ONE of them had a female musician. Now, this is not a knock on the bands themselves—they’re free to assemble how they wish, but you’d think it would have at least played a part in the decision making over in the radio station’s booking department. In this day and age, there are too many talented females out there (Tiny Vipers anyone? Sera Cahoone? The Gossip?) to build a male-dominated lineup like this one. I digress…
Two local hot-shit bands, The Valley and Feral Children, opened for two out-of-towner outfits, Georgia’s Dead Confederate and Brooklyn’s Yeasayer. The Valley took the stage first and blasted a half-filled Showbox with a unique blend of tavern-punk, Seattle grunge, and 70s metal. The set was fairly workmanlike, with the exception of drummer Jim Laws acting like it was his first time on the mic (“I can say ‘fuck’ on the mic. ‘Fuck’. Did you know I can fucking say ‘fuck’?”). The jams were solid and tight, however, with singer/guitarist Dan Beloit howling like the good ol’ days. Next up was the band I and apparently everyone else came to see: Feral Children.
Introduced by two embarrassingly inebriated elves given the smackdown by an even drunker Santa Claus (in their defense, they did have a shot-taking contest onstage as an interlude; I’d never seen that before), FC played with intensity and animalistic vigor. The crowd level was at it’s peak for this set, and for good reason: the band features two drummers (Jeff Keenan, who includes an empty beer keg to “round out” his kit, and Bill Cole), two vocalists (bassist/yelper Jim Cotton and the aforementioned Keenan), there’s Josh Gamble playing a well-timed and explosive guitar, and there’s Sergey Posrednikov tickling the electronic ivory, embellishing the songs with a bevy of synth-like melodies and rackets. The band has been compared to Modest Mouse, but despite the superficial similarities (vocal range, suburban Washington upbringings), there isn’t much else to hang the comparison on. Sure, there’s some experimental guitar, some aggravated and pent up lyricism, but the band seems to pride itself on imaginative and instinctive song structures that sound all their own. At times, the rawness appeared to impede the cohesion of the song, as Keenan seemed unable to simultaneously focus on both his lyrics and his wild drumming tactics. But, ultimately, their set did not suffer. “Beast = Goldmine” proved to be the ideal opener, “Zyghost” (my favorite) admirably bolstered the middle, and “Jaundice Giraffe” sounded hauntingly perfect as the closer.
Invited all the way from Athens, Georgia was the quasi-grunge, sonic barrage of Dead Confederate. They are obviously talented and schooled in the basic facets of guitar rock, but I felt at times they were channeling the hard sound of the early 90s a bit too fastidiously. Were it not for the difference in hair color, one might mistake singer/guitarist Hardy Morris for a young Kurt Cobain—he certainly sounded enough like him. This is not to say that it’s necessarily his fault, but the similarity is quite evident. Guitarist Walker Howle (how cool is that name?) played well and seemed to drive the band’s sound.
The final band of the night was Yeasayer, who I thought was gonna play an 80s-ish, Talking Heads-inspired genre of offbeat pop and electronica. I was mistaken in the fact that their live sound would have been better juxtaposed with the sounds of ocean waves and sensual optimistic hippies—in short: new-age. It might (read: must) have been the liquor that skewed my opinion of this trendy Brooklyn band, but between the Weird Al-wannabe bassist, the beautiful locks of the Indian guitarist, and the often cheesy other-worldly music, I came away more laugh-inspired than awe-inspired. Which is too bad, because I actually enjoyed some of the songs I’d heard prior to the show, but unfortunately it didn’t resonate like I had hoped. Like many others, the lady and I sloppily left before the end of the set (but not before a delightfully-drunken pit stop at the photo booth) and stumbled out onto 1st Ave into the cold frigid night.