The fabled Orpheum Theater possesses a resplendent magic unlike any other venue in Los Angeles. What better place for KCRW’s holiday concert, Are Friends Eclectic? In true KCRW form, the night was colored by exceptional diversity in lineup and audience alike.
Blues rockers White Denim opened with a free form jam à la Shuggie Otis’s “Freedom Flight” before rocketing into a psychedelic crusade. Singer/guitarist James Petralli’s triumphant wah wah wail was complimented well by mandalic video art. The nearly seamless four-song set ended with the boot-stomping “I Start to Run,” featuring Petralli’s fiercest vocals.
Englishwoman Anna Calvi’s virtuoso guitar playing and alluring stage presence was spellbinding. Backed by no more than a drummer and a percussionist/harmonium player, Calvi piloted through dramatic shifts in energy, from the hushed verse of “Love Won’t Be Leaving” to a soaring Jeff Buckley-esque vocal vibrato and a supersonic solo.
After a three-day journey from Borneo, Zee Avi arrived to lullaby the Orpheum. Hula gestures and the ease of her voice coalesced in her medley of “The Book of Morris Johnson” and “Pumped Up Kicks,” whisking the audience to a beach-paradise paradox. Avi’s performance was unparalleled in sweetness and simplicity, but also delved into tragic subject matter with a cover of Morrissey’s “First of the Gang to Die.”
The performance of reggae legend Jimmy Cliff marked the night’s peak in energy. Clad in a shimmering gold jacket and a black backwards hat, the Jamaican knight lit the stage with spins reminiscent of James Brown. For the first time in the night, people were out of there seats, dancing to classics “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and his version of “I Can See Clearly Now.” At 63-years-old, Cliff continues to uplift with the youthful vitality of his voice and the optimism of his message. It’s no wonder he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Singer-songwriter Brett Dennen acknowledged the pressure that came with his slot: “I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but this is the first time I’ve had to get on stage after Jimmy Cliff.” Dennen’s performance was extraordinary in that he, a single man with a guitar, wasn’t overshadowed by the exuberance of Cliff and his big band. He charmed with his quirky persona and playful vocal style, even reaching the whistle register at the absolute peak of his range. Barefooted, he shuffled his way from the lighthearted “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)” to the redemptive “Ain’t No Reason.” Dennen was the only artist granted an encore, finishing with crushing social commentary in “Heaven.”
Iron and Wine closed the show with songs from their latest album Kiss Each Other Clean. As in his sparse, acoustic material, Samuel Beam’s musical sagacity comes across in his larger, electric arrangements. Beam’s competence as an arranger and craftsman of pop songs was unquestionable, but his voice was too faint to match the sonic multitude. The night ended with a treat when Jimmy Cliff appeared onstage to take a verse in the finale, a cover of “Johnny Too Bad.”
Of course, it was impossible for Are Friends Eclectic? to cover all of the bases in one night. Though every genre and demographic couldn’t be represented, KCRW did a damn good job at creating a stellar assortment of artists. In the event that KCRW makes the holiday concert an annual event, it’s likely to become a tradition for broad-minded music enthusiasts.
All Photography by Jeremiah Garcia