Fanfarlo Live Review (Herald, 4.13.10)

Posted on May 18, 2010

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Fanfarlo’s young frontman Simon Balthazar stepped on stage Sunday night in cotton whites and lime green socks, his hair shaved on the sides to resemble the ’do of Roland Orzabal from new wavers Tears for Fears. The curious quintet from London employs violins, trumpets, melodica, clarinet and fiddle in addition to guitar and keyboard, played by band members variously decked out in “Clockwork Orange” button-ups, Joan of Arc bobs and Royal Air Force mechanic overalls.

But Balthazar’s look was telling. Despite Fanfarlo’s obvious debt to the attic-raiding, orchestral indie rock bands of recent years, the band’s roots lie in the cultural mishmash of the ’80s.

Fanfarlo hails from London, though Balthazar grew up in Sweden, and was at the tail end of their most recent trip to the U.S. in the wake of their debut, the richly orchestrated “Reservoir” (Atlantic). “You’ve got to know when you’ve had enough fun,” Balthazar told the audience toward the end of the night. “We’ll be back soon.”

Until then, there was time for this last go-round. Brisk four-on-the-floor beats underpinned delicate guitar strumming and stoic counter melodies from a suitcase full of auxiliary pieces including a melodica, fiddle, keyboard and clarinet.

Balthazar stood front and center with a rubbery croon lifted from the Talking Heads’ David Byrne. On recordings, he experiments a lot more with ringing precious bits of emotion out of whispered lines, but the more blunt live approach works better. This band has plenty of dainty bells and whistles to keep everything properly vulnerable.

In the stitched together breezes “You Are One of the Few Outsiders Who Really Understands Us” and big set closer “Ghosts,” the band comes together like some mammoth reincarnation of Dexy’s Midnight Riders, grabbing from old world music with a charm and lack of pretense. They ended “Ghosts” with the matador rake that rock bands have been using since the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black.”

It’s when they slip into theatrical 6/8 time that things fall into the predictable world of indie melodrama that’s already been strip-mined by Neutral Milk Hotel and the Decemberists. The Salvation Army Band horns and oil lamp atmospherics of the stomping “I Am a Pilot” and wistful “The Walls Are Coming Down” are designed as turn-of-the-century antiques, but they might remind you more of Y2K-era college radio.

Balthazar was shadowed on his right hand side by Cathy Lucas, who doubled vocal parts with beautiful harmonies, plucked fiddle strings on the dreamy ballads and strummed mandolins on the campfire tunes. She was at her most powerful while manning a lone floor tom in front of the stage lit from below, illuminating her face like a giant scary story flashlight as she pounded Celtic thuds on it and clicked bone chattering sticks on its edges. A lot of the dramatic touches seemed a bit forced, but this wasn’t one of them.

Along for the ride was Lawrence Arabia and his relatively stripped down band, the Prime Ministers. The band valiantly worked through knots of tightly wound four-part vocal harmonies and subtle chord changes to gentle results. Their “Dream Teacher,” though — like a lullaby version of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” — was a bit creepy.

LA’s dusty flannel gospel troubadour Robert Francis opened.

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