The last time I went to Tangiers, almost two years ago, it was a bit of a disaster. A few weeks before at my first Beverly Hills party, filled primarily with public defenders, the hostess (a woman named Romina) had played matchmaker and set me up with her friend, another lawyer and a part-time aerobics instructor. We made plans to see Trespassers William at Tangiers on a Friday night. I waited inside for the entire show, and she never appeared, never called, never texted, and I never heard from her again.
A month or two later, I ran into Romina at jury duty after we were both dismissed from the panel for a drunk driving case. After a spirited discussion, much to the entertainment of the remaining jury pool, I learned that as usual, I was the asshole. My poor date had been waiting outside, unable to get in because the show had sold out, while I sat inside completely oblivious to the concept that a show could actually, you know, sell out.
I discovered Willoughby primarily because I was looking for an excuse to see another show at Tangiers. It was nice to have a chance to head back, although it’s a bit different, and disappointingly so. There used to be some kind of backdrop or artwork behind the stage that added quite a bit to the atmosphere. Now it’s just a plain red wall. Otherwise, it’s still a pretty classy place to have a decent meal and see a low-key show. The room fits at most a hundred people, and it’s the sort of place where people are much more likely to sit on the floor rather than stand in front of the stage.
Willoughby is one of those bands that’s primarily driven by one person – guitarist and vocalist Gus Seyffert, in this case. I’m not entirely sure what would be the best way to categorize his music, but it definitely seemed a bit misplaced for him to be sandwiched between a pair of alt-country* acts, Bukka Allen preceding and Lenly afterwards. We heard most of Bukka Allen’s set and while the music was competently written and performed, his lyrics were predictable and trite (“madness/sadness,” etc.).
Gus has an interesting sort of low-key charisma that’s perfect for a place like Tangiers. He writes the sort of subdued songs that make you wish that smoking was still allowed indoors; it felt entirely appropriate that I was sipping a Manhattan during Willoughby’s set.
The room filled reasonably well prior to Willoughby taking the stage, and we were lucky enough to find a pair of girls willing to share their booth in the back. Marlene had driven up from San Pedro, and Tammy had driven down from Encino, both of which are pretty well separated from Silver Lake. It’s a good sign when you’ve got fans who are willing to drive thirty miles on a weeknight, especially in a town with as many options as LA’s got, just to see you play. Marlene explained her theory that the band was named for an old Twilight Zone episode called “A Stop at Willoughby,” and after the show, Gus confirmed that she was absolutely right.
The title track for Willoughby’s new album, “I Know What You’re Up To” (download), sounds like it belongs in a James Bond movie. Something a bit more lighthearted than Casino Royale, maybe a Mr. and Mrs. Smith with more intrigue and less gunplay. It’s the kind of sentiment that could be whispered into the ear of a cheating spouse during a dance, immediately prior to revenge being revealed. It evokes scenes out of a Dashiell Hammett or Graham Greene novel, and according to Gus, it was written from the perspective of “one spy to another.”
Willoughby’s cover of “Losing You” (download) turns the John Lennon classic down a notch. The story of Lennon’s life after his break from the Beatles turns my stomach, and it brings me a small measure of spiteful joy to imagine a woman walking away from such an arrogant, selfish asshole. Gus, with his lanky frame, angelic features, and gentle delivery, generates a lot more sympathy.
Well, I’m supposed to be a critic, so I’d better stop fawning over Willoughby and find something to criticize. It’s not that tough – the biggest weakness in their performance, and the one aspect that could add so much if improved, was the staging. The barren feel of the Tangiers stage wasn’t helping, but some dim lighting, maybe some kind of effect to simulate candlelight, would really go a long way. Musically, everything was done well (Gus was polite enough to ask the audience “How’s the mix” after their first song) except for a bit of snare drum resonance**. And not to take anything away from Brian Inscore’s performance on bass***, but a stand-up instrument would be much more fitting to the style of the music. All things considered, I really enjoyed their performance, and recommend them very highly.
I was a bit disappointed we didn’t stay for much of Lenly’s set, because I rather like their song “Animals.” A number of the audience for Willoughby’s set seemed to have the same excuse for leaving, namely that it was late on a weeknight. But they’re worth listening to, and I’ll probably try to see them play again sometime in the future.
* Is anyone else nostalgic for the old Usenet newsgroups? My first introduction to the Internet was pretty much through alt.music.ska, where the perpetual debate of whether No Doubt and Goldfinger qualified as ska (they don’t) probably still rages on. I had always assumed that the term alt-country came from an old Usenet group, where unusual and quixotic country music artists were discussed. It turns out, alt-country is just an abbreviation of “alternative country.”** Hey musicians, is this something that actually happens, or am I completely making it up?*** Other band members:
Mike Green on drums
John Wood on keyboard
Charlie Wadhams on vocals and percussion