Steel Train, Mae and Arden @ The Ottobar - Baltimore, MD (01.18.07)
I've missed Steel Train anytime they've whirled through this part of town, and I've always intentionally disregarded Mae. Arden is a local band I've booked/promoted/seen several times in the past year. Why then did I go to the show? Why then did I waste my time, and why did I spend my Friday night drinking three dollar beers when I could be drinking dollar bottles at the bar by my apartment? Because I've heard that Steel Train is just one of the best bands you could see live, and I've heard this from all walks of music-fan life. Credibility comes in repetition, and you can't throw out claims as such unless you experience them for yourself.
The Ottobar - That was all a bit brash. Let me preface and rewind - I love The Ottobar. It's one of Baltimore smaller venues, but it's well-known and respected for its wide variety of anything underground. The downstairs bar is in a different section of the room than the show area so that socializing isn't a strained exercise. And, being short, seeing is never a problem, which I will forever be grateful for, especially after a billion shows at Recher Theatre. All this on the table, any show at Ottobar isn't going to be bad, and this Friday night was just in line with my high standards. So I answer this question again - why did I go to the show? It's because it's The Ottobar, and because of that, I knew my night would be worthwhile.
Arden - This local band draws easy comparisons to Paramore or Meg & Dia, and likely so. I wouldn't expect anything less from a band that has a female-fronted singer, especially one that croons chorus-high, verse-low hooks in front of simple pop-rock melodies. Singer Laurie's got a good, strong disposition, and her recently-rearranged lineup seems to be working well, but the additional keyboard parts were distracting and forced. News update? Drop the extra instruments; you won't fool this crowd. Arden is best when capturing Laurie's raw essence and with fresh sprigs of lines and melodies, this band could have something dangerously catchy on their hands. For now, they are still performing in the lobby level.
Steel Train - Moment of truth? I've never been into Steel Train, barely listened to their previous albums, and this is probably because the were on Drive-Thru; I assumed Drive Thru didn't have any artistic integrity (anymore) and/or only signed bands destined to suck/fail. Trampoline was the first Steel Train album that gained significant recognition in my listening habits, admittingly. I feel an asshole telling you this. Moreso, I feel like an asshole for never taking the chance to see them live, because - and I cannot stress this enough - I was blown away. As a unit, they were tight and cohesive. As individuals, they were passionate and careful to detail. As band, they played as though they cared about their music, and that the only life that exists for them was on that stage and with those instruments in hand. This is inspiring, their set was inspiring. Singer Jack Antonoff was spirited and engaging, and the rest of the band looked thrilled to be on stage. The positive energy stocked the room so that the rest of the crowd was fully attentive and bobbling around to the beat. That night, at The Ottobar, Steel Train was entrancing.
Mae - I've seen Mae before a few times, and it's been a guaranteed boredom. I've even seen singer Dave Elkins do a solo acoustic thing, which was still just boring. I adored Destination:Beautiful, so this doesn't have to do with a lack of talent, but my bland approach to the last two albums didn't help me get pumped. The band was tight and smooth as a group, but lacked the real spark of interest like Steel Train. Besides Elkins, the rest of the band appeared gravely bored. The core crowd, a solid 20-30 kids, were singing along and trying to crowd surf, yet the band was impartial. This was discouraging. I've always believed that a crowd makes half the show; if a band can't feed off their fans and look mildly entertained by the audience participation, they might as well stay in the studio. Elkins has two mics, one that set out a echo-y, metallic vocal effect that was more annoying than interesting. If I wanted to hear your robot voice, I would listen to your album. They played good bits from all three full-lengths - a good balance - but most importantly, they played "This Time is the Last Time," highlighting good 'ol mp3.com reminiscing.
All around, a great night and well worth the bar tab. But this would not have been as priceless without Steel Train, who easily stole the show. Morale of the story: see this band. Or if you already have, see them again. And go to more shows at The Ottobar. Never been before? Send me a PM - we'll go together.