A bill featuring Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Stolen Babies at Solar Culture Gallery last Saturday night was a study in contrasts.
Opening act Stolen Babies, a young Los Angeles band, dipped its collective toe into the pool of theatricality--the costuming had an Edward Gorey-meets-New Romantics sort of élan--with a short set that flirted with a combination of punk, Goth metal and polka. One-named singer Dominque, though, displayed the verve of a star in the making, her flamboyant gestures, strong voice and accordion playing offering a solid focus in the midst of an otherwise-blurry picture.
On the other hand, Oakland-based headliner Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, a frequent visitor to Tucson, proved how it embraces theatrical rock during a 75-minute, Grand Guignol-style tour de force that might seem self-indulgent if the band didn't play its blend of prog-metal, chamber folk, avant-garde opera, intricate jazz changes and dark mythology with such brutal virtuosity.
Wearing white, Butoh-like face paint and potato-sack jumpsuits, the band employed traditional rock instruments, a junkyard of percussion and various instruments invented by bassist Dan Rathbun--my favorite being something of a lap-steel bass played with mallets--to conjure a snarling, dadaist symphony that always seemed fresh, whether the works were, allegedly, Futurist worksongs or ancient Croatian ditties.
Maintaining momentum is an essential element in the Sleepytime extravaganza, and drummer Matthias Bossi played like a speed-metal technician with ferocious grace. His rhythmic partner in crime was percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Matthew Mellender, who occasionally blew a trumpet as well.
Carla Kihlstedt, who leads her own group Two Foot Yard and is a member of the well-regarded Tin Hat Trio, contributed depth, experience and diversity by playing violin and the 16-string Swedish nyckelharpa. She also added vocals, her shrieks and purrs invariably the perfect counterpoint to guitarist Nils Frykdahl's sepulchral baritone.
A celebratory air coursed through the show (which was anything but a sleepy time) and not simply because it marked the final stop on the band's tour. Frykdahl seemed genuinely touched when his 39th birthday was observed mid-set with the ritual sacrifice of a piñata.