“Hey, you got a haircut.” I’ve known Ryan since his hair was black and his biggest concern was finals. Now his Pierce Brosnan ‘do is cropped short and peppered with the gray that age, fatherhood, and work brings. He pulled his camera from the trunk, I grabbed my notebook, and we headed for The Blue Lamp.
The Blue Lamp sits square in the taint of downtown Sacramento. To the east are streets lined with old trees and older mansions right out of a John Hughes movie; to the west is Midtown with its lofts, galleries, restaurants and hipsters on fixies. When I moved here almost twenty years ago The Blue Lamp was a strip club, and the Motel 6 next door had that “meth lab and hooker” patina. Now there’s a Starbucks across the street, and the motel appears to be cleaned up.
“I need your ID’s and eight bucks each.”
“We should be on the list.” I peeked past the bouncer. The only people in the place were the bartender and four people frantically setting up gear.
“I don’t have a list yet,” he said and then added “you cheap bastard.” Fortunately he was kind enough to toss in this last clause with his eyes. He turned toward the stage. “Hey, this guy says he’s on the list.”
“What’s his name?”
“Yeah, he’s good.”
I never entered The Blue Lamp in its previous incarnation, and in fact this was my first time in the place at all. The club is a long, narrow rectangle maybe 50′ x 150′ with painted brick walls and a fully stocked bar. At the end nearest the door rests the stage and at the back is a lounge-type area lined with couches and decorated with local art. Whatever it looked like as a strip club this is a vast improvement.
Ryan and I grabbed a table against one of the brick walls so that he could shoot and I could scribble notes. We babbled while the band ran through their sound check. Ryan took some test shots and I wrestled with the impulse to gather mind numbing minutiae more to stay busy than anything. As a kid I glazed over when the guitar magazines launched into granular detail about Eric Clapton’s guitar rig or whatever, so the last thing I wanted was to turn this into a gear porn piece. I will say this, though: For three musicians it was a pretty impressive collection of computers, keyboards, and analog instruments. Kathryn Calder and her band lingered near the merch table back by the couches, waiting to headline the empty room.
One beautiful voice filled the empty rectangle, Anomie Belle wringing the emotion out of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” transforming it from broken heart to a spiritual. The hair on my arms stood up; a tingle literally moved down my spine. I wasn’t sitting in a club, I was graveside and these were the last moments before they lowered —
“That’s good. Same level for the other mic, please.”
Sound check, witherus interruptus. I’d never hear whether that house is just a home anytime she goes away. It was like having to pull out in the back seat of the primer gray Camaro because the prom queen had a sudden fit of conscience. But man, for those few seconds it was so good.
About forty minutes later they were officially on, opening with “Phantom” off of The Crush. I’d been struggling for weeks to find a corollary for her voice, which cuts through me so easily. It hit me before the chorus: Sinead O’Connor. This isn’t so much a question of tone or phrasing as one of character. Anomie Belle has that same combination of power, vulnerability, and emotion. And while she tears up fewer Pope photos (Sinead: 1, Anomie: 0), she certainly shares with Sinead a desire to blend music and social consciousness. The difference? Anomie’s concerns are rooted in the American dream, suburban lifestyles, events like the recent Occupy movement.
Next up comes “Lost Horizon” off of the same album. I’m embarrassed to reach for the hackneyed adjective “atmospheric,” but later she agrees with me so I don’t feel quite so bad.
It’s amazing to see so much music coming from three people and a couple of laptops. Throughout the evening Anomie alternates between violin, guitar, vocals, and keyboard; Keith Cushner over on stage left is either banging keys or the bass; and Chris and the laptops pin it all together with loops and precise drumming.
With “Electric Lullaby” the other Anomie Belle comes out — part Siouxsie Sioux, part Bjork, part chanteuse, all her. Sultry, seductive. It’s a mannered voice, an affectation that polarizes listeners. Love it or hate it, it’s unique — an overt act of creation and for that it deserves respect. I’m reminded of the chapter in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles wherein he discusses finding his Dylan voice, that nasally billy-goat whine that both annoys and endears, and feeling like he finally found the voice for his songs. I ask Anomie later whether she felt a similar sense of discovery. She agrees, but I have a hunch that what she’s thinking is “Sweet Jimi’s Afro this chocolate shake is delicious.”
Here’s a live clip of “Electric Lullaby” from another show. Unfortunately the mic can’t handle the big drums, but sometimes you have to take what you can get:
She introduces “The Mosquito in the Closet” as a song about sexuality. I’m not quite sure that the introduction is necessary other than as stage patter. The music is so emotionally intense that I’m not even sure lyrics are necessary. What fascinates me is the juxtaposition between the rhythm and the melody. Chris Icasiano’s drums are like some sort of Victorian era cast iron stamping machine, beating sheets of tin into ornamental shapes with clockwork precision. But the violin and the voice, they are the delicate human craftwork — the bas-relief vines and cherubs — that make the machine human and beautiful.
Another clip from another show, and again the drums just don’t carry. You’re going to have to trust me on this one.
The whole set was exceptional, and included “Bodies Offering,” “Picture Perfect,” “Machine,” “Inky Drips,” “On TV,” and “It’s A Crush.” “I think this song has inspired a lot of sex,” she said before firing up “How Can I Be Sure.” Later I asked her if on some level it bothered her to know that her tastiest cut has launched more sheet tango than Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love.” Okay maybe not, but certainly in the last couple of years. Nope, not at all. Each song is its own little world, and as such it’s sort of a safe place to explore sexuality. Excellent answer.
I’ve linked it before, but it’s too good not to link again:
Now here’s the thing: The intergooglewebtubes allows us all to hear whatever we want whenever we want, right? What’s the point of going out on a Sunday night and listening to live music? Because you can’t hear everything on the intergooglewebtubes. Anomie broke out a bakery fresh and as yet untitled song written for her personal muse, who just happened to be enjoying his birthday on the road with the band that evening. The song was beautiful as was the moment, and honestly I feel like I’m invading their privacy by even saying that much.
After the show Ryan packed up his seventeen lenses and his 9 billion pixel camera and took off. Anomie Belle and I stepped out to have a quick chat, just the two of us. The Starbucks across the street was locked up.
I turned to the bouncer sitting in front of the club. “Hey, do you know somewhere else we can get a cup of coffee?” He shook his head. “Maybe Lyon’s down on J?”
“Yeah, they should still be open.”
“How far is that?” Anomie asked.
“Four short blocks.”
“Okay, that sounds good.”
“I can drive you if you’d like.”
“No, we can walk.”
So we set off past the closed medical offices, pharmacies, and strip malls; past Luis’s Mexican Restaurant now in its third great year of being boarded up.
In the interest of full disclosure I have to stop here and make a confession: I had a digital voice recorder in my pocket. I’m not a journalist, not an interviewer, but I’m a horribly slow scribbler and I didn’t want to forget or misquote. On the other hand, I didn’t want to look like an asshole and I was enjoying our walk and talk, so the stupid recorder stayed off and in my pocket.
So from here onward please note that I am not quoting Anomie Belle. I will put her fictitious words in italics rather than quotation marks. That being said, the spirit of the conversation is intact.
Does all of Sacramento look like this? She asked.
“No, this is a particularly ugly area.”
It feels very suburban.
“Yeah, lots of strip malls and fast food.”
Are you familiar with Stripmall Architecture?
“The band or the blight?”
The band, but we were just having a discussion about actual strip mall architecture in the car the other day.
“What’s to discuss? It’s ugly.”
True, but at least you get a Safeway out of it.
“That Safeway used to be an art deco movie palace named the Alhambra. It’s been forty years and Sacramentans are still bitter about it being knocked down to make way for a grocery store.”
We grabbed a booth at Lyon’s, which is your typical American greasy corporate diner. No character, no signature dish that’s going to make the spiky-haired dude on the Food Network gesticulate wildly. But what it lacks in character it makes up for in late night hours. The place was about a quarter-filled with both Halloween-costumed and regulation drunks eating brown food and drinking coffee.
“What can I get you two?”
Do you have oatmeal?
“Not this time of night. They have to make it so we only have it at breakfast.”
I’ll have a chocolate shake then.
“Oatmeal to chocolate shake? You’re pretty adaptable,” I said. She shrugged and smiled. We got to know each other a bit — small talk and chat about the realities of working in the music industry. But what I really wanted to talk about was how music fit into her life, her memories.
“What was the first record you purchased or remember?”
She mentioned her parents’ records: The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, a capella music, four-part harmonies. But her earliest musical memories were playing singing games with her father at bedtime rather than reading stories. Quite charming, and perhaps explains why she has that charming voice and I — bedtime story kid — make Gilbert Gottfried sound like Pavarotti.
I tried to steer the conversation toward Europe and the UK, more as a shameless attempt to plant the seed for a Euro tour than anything. We talked about how much more passionate Europeans and Brits are about their music. They greet new acts with such enthusiasm and openness, she told me. (I didn’t get much farther than that, though, so you readers from the other side of the Atlantic need to leave lots of “come visit us” comments for her.)
Around that time the rest of the band arrived and piled into our little booth. The conversation became more lively, moving from non-profits to teaching to The Dwarves ending shows by leaving a naked woman standing alone on stage. I stopped writing in my head long enough to simply enjoy the company and the laughs. Brown food and sandwiches made of sliced things were devoured, and Anomie Belle and her musical family were on their way to San Francisco to do it all again the following night. As much as other things change, gigging always remains the same.
Looking for more?
Anomie Belle’s website: www.anomiebelle.com
Drummer Chris Icasiano’s record label, specializing in experimental jazz: www.tableandchairsmusic.com