Friday, July 9, 2010

Gig: Mantler

Mantler (Sheesham and Lotus)

The Tranzac Club. Thursday, May 6, 2010.

A big party in the main hall of the Tranzac Club to celebrate the release of Mantler's new Monody album. Although his first three albums came out at a more regular clip, there's been a gap since 2004's Landau, and as a regular player on the local scene, there were evidently quite a few folks waiting on a new disc.

The room filled up during the opening set by Sheesham and Lotus, purveyors of fine old-timey music. Working in the Southern proto-string-band tradition, the pair (also known as Sam Allison and Teilhard Frost) might superficially seem like an odd match with the smooth sounds that would be coming from the main act, but there's a whole tangle of connections at play here.1 The pair play mostly banjo (Allison) and fiddle (Frost), but there are some other interesting things tossed in — including such devices as the "sepiaphonic monophone", an antiquated amplification horn the pair sing into. The songs were drawn from a variety of sources, from traditionals like "The Fox" to newer stuff like Porter Wagoner's "Head Over Heels In Love With You" — but it all sounded spot-on, coming out with the right amount of slightly tinny raggedness.

"Don't let the sounds of Sheesham and Lotus distract you from getting one of those new Mantler records", Frost said to the room. It certainly didn't distract the crowd from chattering away, the band playing to a semi-indifferent majority standing around in the back. The band didn't let that get the best of them and kept on through their set, but it did lessen their impact a bit. This isn't the sort of music that requires a conservatory-quiet audience — a certain amount of enthusiastic whooping and clapping and dancing is more of a natural backdrop — but the general impression here was that the bulk of the crowd weren't looking for that kind of revelry.

Mantler is a character.

Not in the sense that he exhibits some sort of gregarious personality; the very concept of Mantler is the creation of local musician Chris Cummings, and not merely a nom de guerre. Perhaps the two aren't entirely different — take a Wurlitzer electric piano, add a tux and a persona of a lounge singer laughing to keep from crying — but don't just assume that the one is the other.

That electric piano is, perhaps, at the core of the Mantler sound — soulful and funky, but not without a certain limp softness. That latter can be found, a bit, on the new Monody — a decent album, but even as I was listening to it, I was making comparisons to how I remembered some of those songs in a live setting, with a bit more funky electricity in the live arrangements.

And one could see from the outset that this was going to be a fairly full-on kind of show. Rather than setting up on the main room's stage, there was a large amount of gear set up on the dance floor — certainly enough that the stage would have been rather crowded. But at the start of the show there was just Cummings, playing alone, starting off with "Author" and the melancholy "Crying at the Movies", both from the new album.

With the mood established (and the crowd much more attentive than they had been), he slowly built up the sound around him, adding more and more players with every song, starting with Steamboat rhythm-meisters Jay Anderson and Matt McLaren on drums and bass. A couple more songs as a trio before Christopher Sandes (organ) and Nick Taylor (guitar) — also in the Steamboat camp — joined for "Uphill Battle", a newer-than-the-album tune.

Long-time collaborator Dennis Frey2 added backing vox on "Playin' Along" (from 2004's Landau). Once joined by Mike Smith and Andy Scott, there was an amazing run through "I've Been Destroyed" with Frey hitting the vocal hook hard for the duration of the song as Cummings stood up to rap out a verse. Hot stuff!

"You might be asking how we can top that," Cummings commented at the song's end. The answer was more of a moreness as the horn section (Joseph Shabason, Jeremy Strachan, Bryden Baird and Tom MacCammon) took the stage. "Childman", "In Stride" and "Fortune Smiled Again" would get big horn arrangements, closing out the hour-long main set in a widescreen bookend to the single-spotlight closeup it had started with.

Returning to the stage for the encore, Cummings commented, "I wrote this song in 1997, and my life is a lot better now. Don't take it too literally," launching into "Lately I'm Sad". Indeed, Cummings was justifiably pleased with the night's turnout and reception, and was willing to stretch things out a bit, returning to play one last song solo, ending the night like it had begun. Well-written songs are amenable to a variety of backdrops, and while Mantler's shows range from one-man-with-a-beatbox affairs to full band blowouts, they're always a fine time — but best of all when we get all of them in one go.3

You can check out a couple songs from this set here and here.

1 The keen-eyed might note that both of these guys played on Mantler's new album. In fact, Allison has been a collaborator with the night's headliner for a long time, going back to their pre-Mantler project Hall Of Famer. Plus, like the headliner, there's an underlying theatricality to Sheesham and Lotus' act, bound up a bit in the tensions between knowing that these guys are playing in character, but at the same time expressing something beyond character.

2 I later heard someone describing Frey's appearance as "more Mantler than Mantler!".

3 Mantler is playing next Friday (July 16) at the charming Holy Oak Café with Jay Anderson and Matt McLaren — a show that will be at the more intimate end of the spectrum.

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