Seeing the triple bill of Damien Jurado, Jennifer O’Connor, and Little Wings at Spaceland in Los Angeles on September 9 illustrated the array of acts that get filed under the label “indie folk.” All genre labeling is problematic, but that one seems like it carries certain easily recognized signifiers: artists who record for independent labels and fall on the side of the hushed, acoustic, and introspective as opposed to the loud, electric, and brash. While Jurado and his two opening acts share all of those lighter, less-rocking traits, they were all quite different in how they executed those hallmarks.
First up was Little Wings, the musical purview of Kyle Field. Field definitely follows from the outsider tradition of folk music. He’s lived a transient lifestyle (literally), occasionally collaborating with folks like Devendra Banhart and M. Ward, dabbling in other art forms besides music, and, oh yeah, recording Little Wings records. Add to this that, with his bushy beard, Field looks like he could be Will Oldham’s brother, and it’s clear both visually and musically that he exists in his own plane of singular genius. Playing an acoustic guitar and backed only by a drummer, Field drifted through songs like “Scubi” about down on their luck folks trying to scrap together enough money and hope to survive. Of the three acts, he was the most willing to let a song stretch out and find its own space in the room, to let a song lead him, and not the other way around. “Mellow” as a descriptor for this kind of music usually carries negative connotations (think of the Saturday Night Live skit “The Mellow Show” that mocks the likes of Jack Johnson and his ilk), but Field’s music is good mellow, the type you could listen to for hours, sipping beers as a lazy afternoon faded away.
But as the first on, Field’s set, sadly, was the shortest. He was followed by Jennifer O’Connor. She was somewhat Field’s opposite, in that she rather economically plowed through her songs, even admitting she was doing so because her time was short. She too was backed only by a drummer, her usual collaborator Jon Langmead. O’Connor basically has two types of songs. She does mid-tempo country-rock, like on “Always In Your Mind,” “Daylight Out” (which sounds a bit Spoon-esque, fitting since O’Connor has recorded with Britt Daniel), and “Here With Me,” the title track from her recently released fourth album. And she also does the slower and softer thing, like on the affecting “Valley Road ’86.” She does both very well and has a gorgeous voice. It’s a shame, then, that she’s not better known. Her 2006 Matador debut Over the Mountain, Across the Valley, and Back to the Stars (she also performed its great little title track) got some critical love, but Here With Me has been roundly slept on. I have to cynically wonder if some of the lack of attention to O’Connor has to do with how she lacks the looks of a Jenny Lewis or Feist.
Jurado was joined by Jenna Conrad and Eric Fisher, who have been his collaborators for a while now. The two rotated between guitar, drums, and keyboards. Since this was the evening of the release date of Jurado’s new album, Caught in the Trees, he joked that this was the album release party. Not that his songs are exactly party jams. After an initial group of songs (including Caught’s ace opener “Gillian Was a Horse”) that, according to Jurado, are more upbeat, he came right out and admitted that the set was going to veer into more depressing territory. Plenty of these sad songs were culled from the new album, including the angry “Sheets,” “Last Rights” (which featured beautiful piano work by Conrad), and the slightly more hopeful “Everything Trying.” And the group played nicely reworked arrangements of older tunes “Ohio,” “Abilene,” and the more amped up “Great Today.”
After closing the original set with the backwoods howl of “Best Dress,” on which Jurado shifted to the drum set, the whole band kicked off the encore with “Hoquiam.” Jurado then finished off the night with some songs done solo. He really put his all into closer “And Now That I’m In Your Shadow,” filling up the room with his commanding voice. After the song, he gave heartfelt and hearty thanks to Conrad and Fisher for continuing to play with him. The two seem to help Jurado toe a line between the styles of Field and O’Connor. While Jurado definitely has singular genius, Conrad and Fisher help rein that genius into well-crafted, successful songs.