As they seamlessly changed gears from '60s soul to '70s hardcore to '80s no wave at San Francisco's Rickshaw Stop, Vivian Girls exhibited the surprising revelation that in actuality, the group "Vivian Girls" are really about a dozen different bands that happen to share the same members and the same name. Playing to a nearly sold-out crowd, the group was remarkable in in their ability to meld together disparate styles into a singular cohesion that neither sounded samey nor seemed like they were doing different things simply for the sake of doing different things on May 4, 2011.
Taking the stage, they ripped into a punk version of their phenomenal ode to being bummed out by exes, "Never See Me Again". This arrangement alone showed the group's versatility. While "Never See Me Again" can–at times–seem to be a distanced wail, and at others seem to be an almost too-personal self-reflection (careful people, this version will totally make you tear up), the live version upped the tempo and the refrain's bark, giving an angrier edge than before. Not only did the new take rock, but it showed that no matter the presentation of many Vivian Girls tunes, the underlying soul of the song will pull all other elements to it and form itself into one heck of a good tune. Surely, this is the mark of what makes a song "classic."
Neither acknowledging nor shying away from their early hype, the group spread their set list fairly evenly over their entire career. Interestingly, they didn't choose to open or close the show with new material, but instead used newer songs such as "Other Girls" and "I Heard You Say" as bulkheads to the night's intro and outro. Vivian Girls, when playing the new songs, pulled the tricky balancing act of hyping up the energy, but keeping control of the more complex vocal arrangements, such as "I Heard You Say"'s three part mini-choir. By using the new songs as hooks to keep the show's energy high, they were able to exhibit that the newest jams are probably their best cuts to date.
New-ish drummer Fiona Campbell seems to have modified the band from its previous incarnations. While the band also had sort of a punk background, Fiona really lets the skins have it and drives the band forward with both a heavier and more rapid pace than we've heard live in the past. Because the group's vocal talent is so developed, Fiona's...dare I say Phil Rudd-inspired*...drumming lets the group stretch out the intricacies of their tunes while keeping a gripping tempo.
But, most impressively, was how the group twined various styles into a distinct sound. One minute, when playing their earless tunes from their first few 7"s, they were nearly a hardcore band, whipping through their minute-long songs with more velocity and abandon than on record. The next minute, they were nearly shoegaze on the "Other Girls" intro. But, just as suddenly, the group morphed the hall into a '50s sock hop with "Dance If You Wanna".
While the group established a very distinct sound early on in their career, their live show makes it quire clear that they are evolving past their early–but somewhat rigid–sonic palette. It's doubly apparent live as they massage their earlier material into something that's original but classic at the same time.
* - Oh come on, people! AC/DC! You know, only the second greatest rock band of all time?!!!