Live: Chris Schlarb’s Psychic Temple at Joyful Noise Recordings

We drove up to Indianapolis to catch Chris Schlarb’s Psychic Temple perform.

Touring in support of his latest release Psychic Temple II (on Asthmatic Kitty Records), Schlarb was able to bring some of the essential cast from the guest-heavy release.

Your concert personnel (from left to right):  Chris Schlarb (guitar), Tabor Allen (drums), Andrew Pompey (drums), Aaron Roche (guitar, vocals, effects), Steuart Liebig (bass), and Kris Tiner (trumpet), who is just out of sight on this photo.

It all went down on Friday evening, July 19th, 2013.

The show was held at Joyful Noise Recordings, a music label that also has a retail store and performance space on the second floor of the Murphy Arts Center, a cool building located in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood.  The first floor of the building is mostly shops and restaurants and bars, but as you take the stairs up, it becomes a maze of artist studios.  For those of you from Chicago, it’s not unlike the Flatiron Building in Wicker Park.

The show was in a small intimate space, washed in blue and white, lanterns hanging from above, guitars and mic stands stashed up in the loft, a little alcove serving PBR and Negro Modelo, and a friendly crowd to match the friendly staff.  It didn’t appear there was a bad spot from which to view the stage, but then again, I’m kind of tall, so some of the shorter attendees reading this now might be muttering an invitation for me to go screw myself.

Psychic Temple II has a handful of guest vocalists, but for the live performance, Aaron Roche was responsible for all the vocal parts, providing a solid approximation of the originals… nailing inflections and emphases, while still giving it his own personal voice.  Just below, he’s singing lyrics from “Solo In Place,” which he also performs on the studio album, though it was his performance on show opener “Seventh House” where he shined brightest, matching the vocal acrobatics of Sarah Negahdari’s studio version, while differentiating his rendition with a brittle intonation that gave it an appealing vulnerability.

The live version of “Hyacinth Thrash Quarter” intro’d with Roche toying with effects and looping, creating a swirling mist of distortion that slipped deftly into the song proper, launched by Liebig’s thick bass groove, and then some ferocious tribal drumming by Allen and Pompey.  In fact, the drums really elevated the rest of the ensemble into some ferocity of their own… Tiner was able to go to town on trumpet without fear of drowning out any of his bandmates, and both Schlarb and Roche were able to fire off rounds on guitars… Roche a wave of electricity and Schlarb with a laser beam precision.

There’s an inherent risk in hearing a live performance of a studio album that has made a strong connection… the magic of the studio album can be dispelled when the curtain is pulled aside, and the vision of the live performance doesn’t live up to the vision incited by the studio album.  I’m not talking about a precise re-creation of the original.  In fact, that can be equally intolerable.  But when the live version strays so far from the original that it sounds unpolished or unrehearsed or uninspired or, often, a combination of all of those things, it can put an indelible pall on that once profound connection with the album.

I adore the second Psychic Temple album and I still listen to Schlarb’s Twilight & Ghost Stories with some regularity, but it’s the first Psychic Temple recording that really got to me.  That’s the one that would blunt the trauma of being stranded on a desert island, were I able to listen to it freely while staring out over the ocean horizon for a rescue ship that might never come.  And so when the crew began performing “White Dove in the Psychic Temple”… the concluding song of the four-part suite that is Psychic Temple I… my first thought was, they better not fuck with my memory of that beautiful music.

It was a stunning rendition.  When Allen and Pompey began tapping cymbals, eliciting a sussurant tone from the drums, I knew what was coming… an assumption confirmed when guitar gently chimed in with soft notes.  And then Tiner let his trumpet take flight, and the song became something bigger, something with a greater presence than the studio version.

Both Psychic Temple albums are as much about Schlarb’s studio construction skills as they are about the musicianship of the contributing artists.  There is a masterful touch to how Schlarb brings all the various components into one seamless whole.  It’s a beautiful thing.  But when all of the musicians get up on a stage, together, with only each other to rely upon, to receive queues and trust for support, all that music coming together in summation of many single expressions, the wholeness of sound that results is an amazing thing to hear.  Many artists coming together to create something greater than the sum of their individual parts… that is the reward of hearing live music.  When its potential isn’t reached, it doesn’t go unnoticed.  But when the musicians hit that plateau, it’s an exhilarating experience.

Tiner’s trumpet soaring above the crowd, the textured attack of drummers Pompey and Allen, Schlarb and Roche offering guitar notes sometimes as icicles, sometimes as flickering flame, Liebig’s bass stepping up for a section that marks the song like contrails across a blue sky… and all of those elements joining together for a faithful rendition of the studio song, yet also a presence of something so much more… well, it struck me hard the night of the show, and now, nearly 48 hours later, I’m sitting here typing away, still ranting about the performance.  That there is about as right by the fans as any musician can do.

When interviewed, Schlarb made mention that both of the Psychic Temple albums were based around the drum parts.  Hearing the duo performance of Pompey and Allen in person, it’s easy to understand why Schlarb made that his foundation.  There was an abounding enthusiasm in their play, and the rest of the group seemed to feed off of it.  And it wasn’t about the thump they brought to the performance, but instead, a kinetic energy that acted as sonic rocket fuel for each song, driving songs forward, even when a song called for a slower pace… their sound had the presence of a strong undercurrent beneath serene waters.

As far as playlist goes, all the tracks were from the current album, except for the aforementioned tune from the first Psychic Temple installment, and also two covers… one of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” (“a song about cults,” Schlarb assured us) and the Fleetwood Mac tune “Dreams” (“It’s also about cults,” Schlarb assured us).  The Tears For Fears cover was positively rambunctious, like a boozy rendition by beer hall patrons all joining together to sing along with the jukebox, fueled by whiskey and a Friday night euphoria.  To start, they played the Fleetwood Mac tune pretty straight to the original, but then rocked it out with a transition into Frank Zappa’s “Inca Roads.”

That was the song they closed the show out with, and it occurs to me now that I have no idea how long they played for.  I was too geared up to hear them play to remember to look at the time when they hit their first notes, and I was in a happy daze by the end of the show that I forgot to check the time when they hopped off the stage.  It was one of those performances where they could’ve played all night long and it still wouldn’t have been enough.  A happy scenario, for sure.

Unfortunately, by the time we got into town (we drove up from Frankfort, KY), we had already missed opening act Liz Janes, but we were able to catch the second act, Heavy Hometown.  A trio of drums/vocals, bass, and keyboards (and sometimes the bassist switches up to a secondary keyboard).  Their music has a casual demeanor that’s quite likable.  Mostly moody music that maintains a leisurely pace, even when the music kicks the pulse rate up a notch.  Apparently they’ve got an album coming out in a few months, and if it sounds anything like they did live, I recommend scooping it up.  If you’re someone who likes to play the they-sound-like game, I’d say Heavy Hometown compares favorably to Dean Wareham’s old outfit, Luna.  In any event, after just getting off the road, they were perfect music to drink a beer to while acclimating to no longer driving 70mph.

Just a great night of music.  There’s something special about going out to see live music, an energizing sensation, almost rejuvenating.  And to hit the road adds the excitement of traveling to the experience.  But I also can’t emphasize enough how special the event becomes to see an innovative band in a space like Joyful Noise… a nifty space in a cool building in a fun neighborhood. Seeing live music isn’t just about the music, it’s also about the entire experience… from heading out to the venue, to the walk through the venue neighborhood, the look of the performance space, the friendly staff, the after-show hang, going out for drinks before heading back home (or to the hotel, as was the case for us this time)… it all binds together into the same memory.  If you discover that a musician you favor is going to perform at Joyful Noise, you should give some serious thought to attending, even if you have to drive a little distance to get there… or maybe, especially if you have to road trip to get there.

Schlarb is wrapping up his current U.S. Tour, with an August 4th performance in Los Angeles, and an August 8th performance in Long Beach, CA.  Check out his website tour page for further details.

Also, here’s a link to my interview of Chris Schlarb, conducted in the days leading up to his current tour.

Now, onto some non-music items from our Indy visit, which lasted from the Friday night of the show until the following evening, when we headed back home:

We had an outstanding meal at Pure Eatery, which was on the first floor of the same building as the show.  We walked around the Fountain Square neighborhood, looking for a place to grab lunch, and decided on Pure.  Not sure we could’ve made a better choice.  A cozy little joint with just the right amount of austerity to give it a sharp look.  Food that finds that right balance between fine dining and comfort food.  We had the vegan tacos and the veggie panini.  Both were wonderful, though it’s the vegan tacos we’re still talking about today.  The panini came with potato chips that are apparently made locally… do get them, if offered.  The side salad came with a nice mix of greens, though the house-made tomato basil vinaigrette knocked it out of the park.  We left there feeling great… full stomachs, but the kind of good eating that tells your body that each step you take is making use of every bit of good health the meal imparted.  If this place were located in our hometown, it would be goodbye discretionary income.

We spent some time walking about the Fountain Square neighborhood, where both the restaurant and the show were at.  You can tell the city has done some work trying to make the area pedestrian and bicycle friendly.  A dedicated path (The Trail) for bicyclists splits the middle between foot and car traffic… and not just some meager white line of demarcation… it’s really its own thing.  Very cool.  Also good for the businesses in the area, since the slower traffic and accessibility has got to get their storefronts noticed more.

For instance, I might not have noticed the little comic book shop around the corner from Joyful Noise and Pure… I stopped in at Hero House Comics and fed my nostalgia for the comics I read as a teenager, and found a few modern things, too.  Friendly guy behind the counter, happy to shoot the breeze with me about book titles and the neighborhood, and gave me the names of a few places in the area to check out on our next visit.

And that about sums it up.  We stayed at the downtown Sheraton, which is about a 7-10 minute drive from the Fountain Square neighborhood.  Thanks to the staff for hooking us up at the last minute with a room with a nice view of the city and Monument Circle.