Standing inside the Knockout in San Franciscoâ€™s Mission district late on a Wednesday night, August 27, 2008, I couldnâ€™t help but feel a sense of dÃ©jÃ vu. I know Iâ€™ve been in some club in the city before that had its walls decorated with vintage album coversâ€¦ but was it this one? And had I been there that time for live music or just to hang? The sad part of the story is, if I had been in the place before, it would not have been longer than four years ago. Score one for aging.
But no matter, this night will surely keep its place in the olâ€™ memory banks much, much longer â€“ from the warm, excited hug I received from the Happy Hollowsâ€™ lead singer/guitarist Sarah Negahdari before I even walked through the door, to the drunkenly enthusiastic girl in the audience who intimated she could be doing exactly what Iâ€™m doing right now (and in truth, her first impressions of the Happy Hollows matched mine almost exactly, so if she could get the essence of what she was saying translated to the screen/page, she could very well be a new voice in the ever-crowded blogosphere), and the striking contrast of the three bands on the bill, there was plenty more to associate with the venue this time than just a bunch of LP sleeves on the wall (and 45s too).
I first encountered the Happy Hollows, an energized Pixies-esque punk-ish trio from that hip section of L.A. known as Silver Lake, during San Franciscoâ€™s annual Mission Creek festival back in July. What made them stand out that Friday night in July was still very much on display more than a month later, and it was still working to their advantage. But more on that in a bit.
First up was Thousandnames, a low-key local trio with a tendency to project an almost new-agey chill-out vibe. Case in point â€“ though the blond lead singer/guitarist switched out his acoustic guitar for an electric after the first song, if you werenâ€™t looking you never would have noticed. With subtle echo effects on the vocals, light drumming, and low energy permeating the bandâ€™s entire set, this was the rest-up for the adrenaline-blast portion of the night. Imagine Sting around the time he was writing songs like â€œFields of Goldâ€ deciding to strip his sound back to the basic set-up of the Police, but staying low-key and decidedly away from raucous rock nâ€™ roll, occasionally throwing in some Paul Simon-esque world beat sensibilities, singing like a hushed Ric Ocasek, and thatâ€™s Thousandnames in a nutshell. There werenâ€™t a lot of folks paying close attention, except for Ms. Negahdari.
And though the Happy Hollows were second billing to the nightâ€™s headliners, San Franciscoâ€™s own Leopold and his Fiction, and though the headliners surely succeeded in rousing the majority of the Knockoutâ€™s occupants to their feet for some booty shakinâ€™ to their early â€˜70s blues-rock retro sounds (think Cactus without the coke-fueled rasp, or the Raconteurs as a genuine barroom boogie band rather than a thinking manâ€™s throwback to the time when the blues and rock nâ€™ roll were almost one in the same), it was that little middle band from Silver Lake that kicked the adrenaline up to the max musically.
And seriously, youâ€™re going to have to kick up some dust if youâ€™re going to try keeping up with a D.C. rhythm section. Giving Negahdari the perfect complement to her charmingly humble yet fun and frenzied stage presence are the duo of bassist/vocalist Charlie Mahoney and drummer Chris Meanie. As anyone schooled in the music of Dischord Records will tell, these guys soaked up their hometown sound through and through before making the move to L.A. Hooking up with Negahdari, whose speedy rhythm guitar forms the bedrock of the bandâ€™s sound, inevitably produced musical dynamite. The penultimate explosions occur during their big crowd pleaser, an unreleased tune (currently streaming on their MySpace profile) called â€œLieutenant,â€ where Negahdari rips some theatrical leads, tapping her fret board, making a noise that visually references Eddie Van Halen, audibly approaches Jimmy Page, but is purely Negahdariâ€™s own. That she keeps the rock star guitar showcase segment of the show down to only one song maximizes its punch â€“ this is where the audience becomes transfixed, shouting in approval, overtaken by the buzz of the bandâ€™s tight, punk rock assault.
But for all that, the simpler pleasures of the Happy Hollowsâ€™ set go down just as smoothly, and ably set up the royal payoff. The playful dog and cat pastiche â€œMy Wet Tongueâ€ (from their 2006 EP Bunnies and Bombs) gets all the panting and meowing out of Sarahâ€™s system, and â€œColorsâ€ is, well, an ode to colors â€“ â€œgreen red / yellow purple / black white / blue brown.â€ Second verse, same as the first, then make it louder, and break it down with everyone in the band shouting the colors like a bunch of riotous school children.
They donâ€™t need many gimmicks to put on this kind of happy-go-lucky set â€“ Negahdari only utilizes a handful of effects pedals, and Mahoney will play some keyboards once in a while, but for the most part their chemistry and charm carry the way forward (oh, and talent too, canâ€™t forget the â€˜tâ€™ word). Opening gigs for the Silversun Pickups last year and Deerhoof this year (October 3 at the Avalon in L.A. and October 4 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco â€“ mark your calendars!) speak volumes for their natural magnetism. Negahdari says that October 21 will also see the release of the bandâ€™s next EP, Imaginary, with a full-length album to follow in February (no hard release date as of yet). Whatâ€™s not for joy?