Sometimes genre is useful in describing music; an easy way to convey to another person that they will, or won’t, like a band. Sometimes it’s easy because you can say, “They’re a rock band,” or “They’re a traditional bluegrass band.”
And sometimes, as with Austin, TX’s the Belleville Outfit, you get stuck. You say to friends, “If you put Holy Ghost Tent Revival’s energy in a blender with Hoots & Hellmouth’s harmonies and foot-stomping acoustic good times, Samantha Crain’s voice, Garth Hudson’s piano, and then ran it all through a Texas strainer, um. That’s close?” The Belleville Outfit defies genre for a lot of reasons, but the primary one that I saw on stage at the Berkeley last night was because they are all absolutely superb musicians. With six members and multiple contributing songwriters, Belleville could fall into the trap of having a songwriter who’s weaker than the others, or a weak musical link on stage live, and they don’t. Rob Teter is a deft and charming songwriter without being smarmy; Phoebe Hunt has, in a new tune called “One Trick Pony”, written what might be my advance file favorite song of 2011; and keyboard player Connor Forsyth’s one tune on the evening was a gorgeous, heartbreaking waltz about choosing a life as a musician.
They’re as comfortable rocking behind Marshall Hood’s electric guitar as they are swinging behind Forsyth’s piano, as they are twanging behind Teter’s plaintive croon or covering Ella Fitzgerald deep cuts behind Hunt’s stunning voice. The Belleville Outfit sounds utterly like themselves, and they are confident and charming live, perfect harmonies and a thickly layered sound that uses every one of their voices and instruments perfectly.
The lights at the Berkeley are uneven; that’s the best word for them, I think. I hadn’t shot in there in several years — I hadn’t been there in several years, a Justin Townes Earle set in late 2008 — and I’d forgotten that it’s primarily back lit, and it’s back lit unevenly across the stage. Lots of lens flare, lots of dead spots, and lots of spots that are too bright. As soon as I gave up looking for the even, clean light of the Cradle or the Lincoln, I could dive into overblown lens flare, captured motion, photos half perfectly lit and half too dark. It’s film light, actually, grainy and full of color. It was lovely.
The crowd was older than my usual demographic, and super polite. They brought their own folding chairs and sat for most of the show, which I found baffling; Belleville makes dance music, music to move to. But they seemed to really enjoy the band, and no one complained that they had to spend a lot of time looking at my ass while I was shooting.
But yes — subdued, polite. I expected, I don’t know, the sort of yelping, rowdy crowd that Holy Ghost Tent Revival attracts, I think. It’s the right audience. Because Belleville is awesome, I hope they get that other places. They were appreciated last night, but they should be loved in noisy, joyous ways.
The Belleville Outfit goes back into the studio in 2011 to record their third album; they played much of what will end up on that album, hopefully, last night, and it was all wonderful — subtle and perfectly stuck in my brain today.