Since 2018, under the name Evan + Zane, award-winning actress Evan Rachel Wood and Grammy-winning songwriter Zane Carney have performed covers and reinterpretations of their favorite songs all over the world. Their sets are always fresh and admittedly under-rehearsed, and always themed: Jealousy, Names, Psychedelia, to name a few. In their own words, this keeps it interesting. The little flubs and mistakes add an air of intimacy, not unlike a couple musically gifted friends who take their instruments out at a house party to perform songs that everyone knows, as well as some that are forgotten, or underappreciated gems that deserve a little light. This set, performed at The Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles, was themed “Welcome to the Machine,” and offered fresh and loose reinterpretations of machine and robot-themed songs of the past three decades, plus an instrumental interlude from the early days of jazz.
The live music industry has taken a major hit since COVID-19, and keeping it alive until things return to some version of “normal” requires dedication of supportive fans willing to attend shows through a screen. Certain things that are old hat for seasoned concert-goers are completely out the window: the hour window between doors-open and the opener, waiting in line for a twelve-dollar beer and wondering if investing in the larger size IPA will be worth the extra couple bucks or if it might risk loosening one’s wallet enough to buy one or three more, making one’s way to the back during the encore to avoid the bottleneck once the house lights come up (which has been replaced by a black screen with the words “Stream is stopped”)…
With these more problematic components of the live concert experience out of the question, certain freedoms and frugalities come in to replace them: people can eat and drink what they want when they want, carry a conversation with the people one is streaming it with, wear headphones if one is watching alone and feel true auditory intimacy… Of course, all of this is at the cost of the beautiful circular geometry of crowd energy feeding off of stage energy and vice versa. Also lost is taking in one’s favorite songs mediated through the unique acoustics of the venue while experiencing every sense that live music calls forth, from stale odors and various strains of contraband weed to lights and projectors to the inevitable entry of lower back and leg pain that tends to emerge midway through the headliner and can only be cured by dancing or retreating to the nearest wall to lean like there’s no tomorrow.
Evan + Zane were quick to acknowledge the strangeness and awkwardness inherent to this form of live music consumption. The warmth was pleasantly ironic, given the set’s theme. Opening with a sparse take on the second track on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Wood’s thespian presence, accentuated by an illustrative embellishment around her right eye, an exquisitely coiffed 1940s pinup ‘do and a full coverage black leather dress right out of The Matrix, delivered dour, heavy-hearted lyrics as Carney slogged dirty chords on his hollowbody jazz guitar, face mostly concealed by hat, shades and mask. With a red curtain behind them, the tight framing of the cameras kept things close. The area rug beneath them made the stream feel more like a studio session or rehearsal than a stage concert. The occasional shot of the “room” they faced offered glimpses of two or three shadowy figures operating cameras and mixing room sound and stream sound, lit only by errant stage lighting and LED displays.
Like many E + Z shows, this one featured only the two performers. The sparseness of the opening song wasn’t the boldest way to begin, even as the set’s namesake. Considering how Wood’s contributions are purely vocal, and that the musical element was carried entirely by Carney’s guitarwork (juiced by an expansive pedalboard that included a loop station, used sparingly), keeping a full set interesting without bass or drums is a tall order. But they didn’t disappoint.
Following the opener with Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” gave Wood an opportunity to stretch her vocal chords while Carney’s fingerwork and agility on his pedalboard filled out the otherwise dry and dead audio field with rich, warm tone. For a first-time streamer, the lack of audience noise can be jarring, which Wood and Carney were keen to point out. The Futureheads’ freak-romp “Robot” ended with Carney observing that it’s a song that benefits from applause, to which Wood promptly responded, “Which song doesn’t?” before correcting herself: there are exceptions, naming Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” “It’s a rule.”
The balance between humor and the heavy reason behind the need for a streaming platform ran through the show. There was also the sad news that Duane Edmonds, their “biggest fan” who also filmed their performances for his YouTube channel, had died earlier this year. They dedicated the song “Robotic” by Hannah Georgas him, to which one attendee posted in the comments: “The voice of an angel.” It was a touching tribute.
Throughout the set, Wood’s exceptional range was often foregrounded, but didn’t outshine the guitar. The highs of St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” were on point as Carney mimicked the brass section. A couple strange unexpected moments included a cover of Daft Punk’s “Technologic” which saw both performers trading the list-lyrics with an impossibly jolly guitar riff between verses, and Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of,” which was almost laughably out of place, but by then the duo’s frivolity and impulsivity had been well-established as their defining feature, like a couple of friends who decided last minute to play the high school talent show and miraculously managed to pull it off.
Devoid of applause and asking questions that could not really be answered with cheers allowed the unique aspects of the platform to be exposed. Counts next to emoji clap, heart and laugh icons kept track of crowd response, a digital “tip jar” tracked donations to keep the venue afloat, and the comment box gave an outlet to what could have been vocal audience members screaming out from the throng. One was actually answered when Wood came back from Carney’s instrumental interlude (1932’s “Alone Together”) to give a shout out to the person who identified the Kate Bush song they had just performed. Anyone could have Googled the lyrics, of course, but like on social media, sometimes it’s nice to at least pretend people aren’t constantly wired in, and to have a conversation as human beings learning from each other, as opposed to isolating ourselves and hiding in loneliness behind global connectivity. Welcome to the Machine, yes, but people aren’t robots, either. Not yet.