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On Holding Hands at Shows: Girls at Bimbo's in SF

This is a review of Girls's wonderful set at Bimbo's 365 in San Francisco on April 11, 2012. But first, some context...

My wife teases me about my fondness for a lot of 1970s pop, but none more than the limp singer/songwriter dreck of James Taylor. Although she seems to not mind his voice, songwriting, or arrangements on their own, together they make a song like "Smiling Face" completely insufferable to her delicate ears. All for good reason: James Taylor's gift is in pushing the range of human experience to its most obvious end so that there's no need to actually feel the depth and nuance of the emotion, just enjoy the moment. Sure, that's a proposition that mostly appeals to parents just back from vacation. But it's also music meant for holding hands, long Sunday brunches, and other simple pleasures. Naturally, my wife and most other discerning music lovers just don't understand the appeal, and James Taylor and his ilk are mostly banned from any stereo within earshot. [See also: Carole King, John Denver, Jackson Browne.]

Finding an artist or band that puts my wife (and the rest of the world) at ease the way James Taylor does for me is a worthwhile challenge. So I was surprised when the San Francisco garage revival band Girls emerged from the crowd of more obvious beardy softbellies like Bon Iver and Iron & Wine. Although on record the Girls sound is easily pinned against the weird '50s bop of "Lust for Life" and "Honey Bunny," in the live setting these songs are tossed off in favor of the slow burn of songs like "Ghost Mouth" or the Pink-Floydian build and release of "Vomit." In fact, with the addition of a trio of soulful backup singers and a boozy slide guitar, almost every song in the Girls set at Bimbo's in San Francisco this April included a note of the epic. Whereas a band like Spiritualized has used the same tools to build an ivory temple in concert, Girls's lead guy Christopher Owens remained centered in the bombast: slight of build, thin of voice, and efficient of movement, but transfixing all the same. He's so much like a gay, blonde Roy Orbison that I'm surprised David Lynch hasn't approached him yet about a collaboration.

Because the personal narrative at the heart of most Girls songs is so twisted and inaccessible
-- Owens grew up in a cult and escaped into drugs and punk rock as a teenager -- it's amazing that this music is so perfect for hand-holding. Christopher Owens is no James Taylor, of course, but there's no denying the easygoing, almost romantic side of his oeuvre.

On a stage covered in bouquets of colorful flowers, the band added strummed guitar interludes and warm keyboard tones to extend its otherwise forsaken organ songs about living alone, sleeping alone, and dying alone into a more inclusive space. Although the band doesn't lean much on stage banter to lighten the sentiment of its songs, it did often acknowledge and thank the audience, particularly given this was a hometown show, and demonstrably enjoyed playing together, which goes a long way. More importantly, Girls expertly remained on the right side of the line between playing to each song's maximum potential and preening tunes beyond their natural limits. With an abundance of good vibes, the meaning of even the most forlorn song of regret was translated into an axiom of the affirmative: enjoy your life while it's yours -- there's love enough in the world for us all. And believe me: judging by all the hand-holding and smiles, the message was not at all wasted on this audience.

-- Ryan Mixtape, 05/01/2012