Los Angeles is one of the most entertainingly conflicting cities on Earth. Any night of the week offers at least a half-dozen venues catering to any sort of musical preference you might have. Fine art and classical music certainly has their home, in places such as the Hollywood Bowl or Disney Concert Hall. But nestled on West 7th Street, between a dry cleaner and a bar, is the Teragram Ballroom. And on their stage Wednesday night was a 13-piece orchestra and virtuoso cellist, delivering a stellar performance for those wise enough to trust the dark corners of the city on a school night.
The orchestra is known as Mother Falcon, an Austin, Texas export, and the cellist is Ben Sollee, a solo artist by way of Kentucky. Instead of playing one set, breaking, then finishing the show off with the other, their performance was a joint venture, with the entire cast of Mother Falcon playing side by side with Sollee, until the singer/songwriter took reprieve and let the musical mass take over for 45 minutes.
Fronted by two stellar cellists of their own, Mother Falcon sounded better than their recent recordings, a tall task when asked to balance so many different tones and tenors. Their songs spanned the band’s short but productive career, showcasing each member’s unique abilities in a way only Arcade Fire has been capable of in recent memory. The double barrage of strings up front worked well in tandem, often ditching the harmony for call and repeat movements. Most extraordinary might be how explosively reserved they are, as you don’t imagine much passion from such a swath of classical instruments. Those that dedicate their time to this style of music tend to be introverted, as so do their audiences. But the wild fire under vocalists Nick Gregg and Claire Puckett was entrancing and unavoidable.
On a purely molecular level, bands four times smaller than this break up everyday, so their sheer dedication to scheduling, recording, and touring is beyond commendable. However, Mother Falcon might be too real for mainstream. They lack any sort of digestible gimmick that would give the casual observer a feeling of “Oh, that’s what they are all about.” Each song can vary in tone and scale, in a way impossible for bands made up of traditional rock and roll instrumentation to duplicate.
When Ben Sollee returned, he utilized various “wings” of Mother Falcon throughout his set, keeping a drummer here or a saxophonist there to play music off of his solo albums. Sollee’s natural charisma shone behind an instrument that rarely allows such personality, as his vocals blended between strain and scat, simple but organic, and all his own. Often times he ditched the bow for a bit of finger picking and semi-slapping, giving his tunes that down home soul obviously influenced by his roots. His songwriting is strong, if not a little too pop in comparison to the musical behemoth he’s touring with. But it fits his Americana look and personality without coming off like a shtick.
The entire band casually joined Sollee during the end of his set, tuning their instruments in the key of that song’s ending. Then it was back to the joint effort of pleasing (maybe) 200 people, all focused on every pluck, slap, and squeeze. A show like last night’s exemplifies the diversity of talent available on any day of the week, if you know where to look. For one random Wednesday night in November, a masterclass in grassroots talent was hidden in the corner of a bustling metropolis. If either act comes your way in the future, don’t think, just go.