After Oslo and Found Dead on the Phone cleared off their respective keyboards, drum kits, basses and at least two guitars each, the stage looked almost deserted. What remained was like a spare still-life in the half-light of colored spots: one drum kit and related apparatus at far stage left; two double-neck guitars and about a dozen effects pedals at stage right.
The expectant effect barely had time to sink in before two clean-cut guys bounded on stage, and everyone remaining in the club rushed up front, as if to find out how the rabbit gets into the hat. El Ten Eleven can sound like a room full of gear, or an orchestra, or a rock band spread over an arena stage. It's a trick to stay focused on the journey of the melody; the temptation to watch how it's made is overwhelming. Guitarist Kristian Dunn makes loops upon loops throughout each song, and then plays to them, his feet subtly and precisely tap-dancing on his array of pedals. Now it's a calliope, then chimes, a toy piano, a guttural, heavy rocking bass.
Drummer Tim Fogarty plays barefoot. He, too, sets up loops and effects on electronic drum pads. With everything going on between the two players, it's a surprise, and an apparent miracle, when they're able to incorporate stop-time dynamics.
Few reviewers are able to write about this band without mentioning Tortoise, to give a sense of the skilled, intellectual-but-accessible quality of this mostly mid-tempo instrumental music. But the reference doesn't do justice to the excitement and grit with which it's played, or the range of references, from Kraut rock, to heavy metal and '70s pop. Fans of the Chicago Underground Duo might have a better sense of the sensibility, if not the music.
It was a night for sterling musicianship. Oslo bassist Kerry Wayne James' intricate, almost contrapuntal bassline made "Things Fall Apart" a set standout. Gabrial McNair's elegiac guitar sustained the long, mordant excursion through "All Terrain" under and around Mattia Borrani's passionate vocals, which veered through the set from croons to screams.
Tucsonans and bill-openers Found Dead on the Phone set the stage for the later bands' eclectic sets. Their songs ranged from mournful and hypnotic to full-on blasts of blistering guitars and color-drenched keyboard fills. Downside: no CD to take home. Yet.