July 11-18, 2007

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No-Frill Thrills

By Don O. Marino

Nostalgia: Not What It Used to Be

Considering the motivation for Squirrel Nut Zippers' current reunion--a means of paying lawsuit fines to two former members--these hot jazz/swing revivalists' Catalyst gig could have been a far more dismal affair than it was. Mind you, the flaws--and there were many--were impossible to ignore, but it's to the band's credit that the loss of a couple of irreplaceable musicians hasn't completely buried this Squirrel's nuts, so to speak.

If camaraderie wasn't exactly spilling from the Catalyst stage, we can probably chalk it up to the fact that the group's two remaining kingpins, vocalist/banjoist/ukulele player Katharine Whalen and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist James "Jimbo" Mathus, are now divorced. But the dutiful tone of the Zippers' performance didn't dampen the festive feeling in the air, nor did it stop the crowd from loudly welcoming songs like "Put a Lid on It" and the group's signature tune, "Hell," which cooked right along despite the conspicuous absence of its composer, Tom Maxwell.

It's a testament to the strength of the Zippers' material that the band pulled off a crowd-pleasing show in spite of some surprisingly shaky musicianship: Neither Whalen nor Mathus sang especially well--Whalen's voice, in particular, often merely gestured in the vicinity of the intended pitches--and though Mathus displayed agility and taste in note selection as a guitarist, his tentative attack and feeble intonation kept his solos from hitting listeners in their happy spots. The real stars of this concert were trumpeter Je (pronounced "Jay") Widenhouse and drummer Chris Phillips, the latter of whom single-handedly (OK, double-handedly) pounded the group's weaknesses into submission.

Just Plain Folk

Two nights later, a herd of teens and twenty-somethings lined up for Vetiver's show at The Attic, hungry for the sound of folk getting its freak on. Sort of.

"I don't like the name 'freak-folk,'" one fresh-faced fan complained before the show. "I think of it more as neo-folk."

Once inside, it was easy to see her point--there really wasn't anything all that weird about Vetiver--or, for that matter, the two fellow S.F. groups that opened the show, The Dry Spells and Papercuts. No gimmicks, here--just three bands with naught but their instruments, some pretty melodies and a disarming sense of honesty. The Dry Spells, with their ghostly lovely vocals and slightly ethereal guitar sounds, might qualify as "dream-folk," but freaky? Nah.

As for Vetiver, there wasn't a shred of pretense in frontman Andy Cabic's stage manner as he guided his band mates through a set of soft, country-tinged ballads that nodded respectfully to The Grateful Dead's "Brokedown Palace." Simple song structures built from open guitar chords, with the instrumentation mainly serving as a backdrop for Cabic's gentle but confident voice--sure sounds a lot like plain ol' folk, doesn't it?

Part-time Vetiver member Devendra Banhart was nowhere to be found this time around, but he'll be appearing with his own band at The Rio on Sept. 6. Mark your calendars, freaks. I mean, um, folks.

Summer School

For a deeper understanding of the provocative performances at this year's Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, look to an upcoming Cabrillo College course taught by New Music Works' Phil Collins. MUS85Z starts July 17. To enroll, visit or call 831.477.5678.

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