Of course, to describe the enthusiasm that surrounded Avi Buffalo's rise as "hype" is a considerable stretch, given the media complex that engulfs us. The concept of hype more accurately describes the mechanisms by which I became aware of LeBron James when he was a high school sophomore, even though I haven't willfully watched a basketball game since the Pistons swept the Lakers in the 1989. (I decided on that day that the gods who ruled the NBA were cruel, malicious, sadistic gods, and that I would no longer be subject to their whims.) In this light, the unanimous blog-praise and the Sub Pop contract that Avi Buffalo received seem rather quaint. But, from my churlish perspective, it still smelled like hype.
I considered and then declined many opportunities to see the band perform. I periodically checked out the songs on their website and found nothing extraordinary. But, late last year, I finally relented and gave them a true chance. It was the day after Christmas and I'd spent the previous sleepless night in Las Vegas. I saw that Avi Buffalo would be playing the Echoplex that night, and my sleep-deprived, road-addled mind was suddenly open. Plus, it was literally the only show in town.
Standing in the sparsely populated, seasonally decorated Echoplex, I was hoping for the best, but I was more than prepared to stand there scowling for the entire set. Then the kids came out on stage. Avi, guitar in hand, opened his mouth to begin the first song ... and suddenly there shined round about me a light from heaven. And I fell to the floor, and heard a voice saying unto me, "L.G., L.G., why persecutest thou me?" And I said, "Who art thou, Lord?" And he said, "I am Avi Zahner-Isenberg; is it hard for thee to be such a prick?" (Acts 9:4-5)
Okay, so maybe it wasn't exactly like Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus. But it was pretty close. As soon as that sweet, intricate pop came lilting out of the speakers, I was a believer. "I've loved Avi Buffalo from the beginning," I practiced lying. "I'm so glad they're having so much success. They deserve all the hype!"
Even the unconverted would have to be pretty heartless not to have enjoyed the band's record release show last night at the Troubadour. (Hell, everyone kept referring to it as a "record release party," and I'll play along, even though a party really should have cake. Why not? It felt like a party!) This record release party drew the widest range of ages that I've ever seen at a show. There were young teenagers, an elderly lady with a walker, and everything in between. If I had to guess the median age in the room, I'd say, "Why are you forcing me to answer such a ridiculously difficult question? This is an absurd situation, even if it is hypothetical!"
Of course, a lot of the older folks were family members and friends of the circa-nineteen-year-olds who make up Avi Buffalo, and their well-deserved pride was infectious. I've never seen so many people photographing a marquee before. (Unfortunately, on one side of the sign, the v in "Avi" was not an actual v, but a curious symbol that does not appear in our alphabet. Oh well. C'est la rock and roll.) Sitting at the bar, I overheard a certain bandmember's mother walking the fine line between nervously freaking out and kvelling over the addition of Avi Buffalo to her vinyl collection. I'm a bitter young fogy, and still I cracked a smile.
Opening the show was The Wailing Wall, aka Avi's old summer camp buddy Jesse Rifkin and his band. It seems profoundly unlikely that one summer camp would produce two musical visionaries, but--at the risk of getting ahead of myself and the artists in question--it appears that this may have happened. In what would have to be the most fearless act I've ever witnessed an opening band commit, Rifkin began his set a cappella, and, true to his stage name, he wailed a gorgeous, chazzanic song of pure, spiritually informed poetry, using tingshaws for eerie, crystalline punctuation. The rowdy room, thick with boozy anticipation, was instantly silenced.
Rifkin is a young Jewish guy with a nasal voice whose work owes much to the old-weird-American folk tradition, so comparisons to You-Know-Who are inevitable. While certainly accurate, such comparisons would be criminally reductive. While many of the songs The Wailing Wall played last night had a Desire-era You-Know-Who influence--a sort of joyous gypsy undercurrent--the muscular, labyrinthine sounds the band created are for getting lost in, not for analyzing and comparing and contrasting. And they are, indeed, quite easy to lose yourself in, and you're never particularly eager to find your way out; whenever a song came close to collapsing under its own weight, the soaring trumpet would cut in and lift it back into the cosmos.
Up next was VOICEsVOICEs, making a triumphant return to the Troubadour stage after a rather disastrous set last February. Last night's set provided the same unique, warm, headrush of sound that they brought to the Echo in March. Like their last Troubadour set, they had a few difficulties with the sound system, but, rather than storming off the stage like last time, they addressed the sound guy with an almost comical politeness and deference. It was, indeed, a night of very good vibes.
It was soon time for the guests of honor, Avi Buffalo, to play, celebrating their gently brilliant new album in front of friends, family, admirers, and bloggers.
While I haven't seen the band perform as often as those who got religion before I did, I've seen Avi Buffalo enough that it's not meaningless when I say that last night was the strongest I've ever heard them. While one song had a false start, and there was the standard lag time when Avi had to tune his lovingly abused guitar, everything else about their set left me (well, not literally) speechless.
For one thing, Avi seems to have gotten over that tic of his where, when the audience would shout "Whoo!" at the end of the song, he would bemusedly "Whoo!" back. He only did it once last night, when his announcement that they would be playing the masterful "What's In It For" elicited a particularly dense crop of whoo-age.
The band opened with "Summer Cum" (oh, artists, how do you do it? to casually play a song called "Summer Cum" with your mother in the audience?), its breathless, hopscotching jangle worming its way into every ear in the building. Rockers (by Avi Buffalo's modest standards) like the aforementioned "What's In It For" made a little bit of hip-shaking and fist-pumping irresistible. The vocal dynamics and dramatic ascents of songs like "Jessica" and "Where's Your Dirty Mind" found a way of sneaking up on me, dialing up the electricity so slowly that I didn't even notice my hair starting to stand on end. And then, after claiming that they didn't know any more songs, the band encored with a new one, and all I can say is, wow: you would not imagine that pop and blues could come together in a meaningful way, but it is apparently quite possible.
While Avi Buffalo has been universally praised since the release of their record this past week, the raves have almost all been tempered by allusions to alleged lyrical immaturity or, most bizarrely, awkwardness. I'd suggest that these critics' caveats exist solely in reaction to the band's age. If a twenty-five-year-old wrote lyrics like Avi's, he'd be uninhibitedly extolled. And awkwardness? Anyone who's ever seen this band knows that the only awkwardness arises between songs. When they're making music, there is nothing but confidence and a clarity of purpose. Avi, while extracting his voice from somewhere deeper than his diaphragm, looks as if he couldn't possibly be doing anything else with his life--like doing anything else would, in fact, be painfully awkward. What a privilege it all is to witness.