Minus the Bear played yet another packed TLA show April 8, this time with fellow prog-rockers Portugal. The Man and new kids on the block Elk. The night was spaced out -- three bands in about three-and-a-half hours -- but fun nonetheless. It got off to a ho-hum start with Elk, a band clearly influenced by mid-period Incubus. While not bad per se, the group's songs certainly don't top Morning View. Once Portugal. The Man took over, though, it was pure headbanging glory and positive vibes.
Frontman/guitarist John Gourley looked pretty gosh darn cool surrounded by thick smoke and red lights, and the setup suited the red-hot grooves he and his band laid down. The band's core trio was augmented by additional keyboard and auxiliary percussion players, and the sound was surprisingly clear, with each instrument's contribution vividly hitting the ears.
While it makes sense for Portugal. The Man and Minus the Bear to tour together, the two are as different as fire and ice. Where MtB's live performances are strong but generally coldly efficient, Portugal. The Man gives off great sonic warmth. The group's soulful vocals and '60s garage rock guitars put the band in the pantheon of the best of classic rock, minus the whole "being a contemporary band" thing. But man are these guys old-school heavy -- blues-influenced and powerful, Portugal. The Man put on the best performance of the night.
If I were to criticize 'em, though, (which I'm about to. Check it), Portugal's lengthy improvisations sometimes got a bit stale. While the guys have solid chops, their solos tend to be based around simple rhythms. So while it's cool hearing Gourley rock out, that simplistic waltz time beat the rest of the band is playing gets tedious. It's a small complaint though, because Portugal. The Man is still one groovy group with some tasty tunes.
By comparison, Minus the Bear's live set felt flatter than Portugal. The Man's. The band's prog-surf rock still conjures up dance marathons live, but the feeling is noticeably less energetic. It's technically sound, another way of saying "mechanical."
Still, there's no stopping tunes like "Dr. L'Ling" or "Burying Luck" off of last year's awesome Planet of Ice. The new material sounds great live. It was the older tracks, though, that left a better impression. While the Planet of Ice tunes were CD-sound quality, the band has started tweaking their back catalogue for a live setting, providing new angles for old tunes. Some of these adjustments were small ("Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco Twister" was only slightly different), but the band did serve up a great new version of Menos el Oso's "Pachuca Sunrise." Electronics wiz Alex Rose whipped out a beat similar to the Alias remix of "Pachuca Sunrise" from Interpretaciones del Oso before drummer Erin Tate kicked things back into the umpteenth gear. One Planet of Ice track, "Ice Monster," did get a new take, thanks to Portugal. The Man.
Two words: Drum circle.
Hearing two great bands jam out a quality tune in a lively manner suited the set well, and it would be nice to see Minus the Bear cut loose like this more often. I love wood blocks, bongos and big goofy grins, and these two bands served 'em up with a side of mustache.
After a 70-minute-ish set and a quick three-song encore, Minus the Bear bowed out to applause. It was a good night overall, but I can't help but feel like Minus the Bear needs to step up their live game if they're going to hit up Philadelphia so frequently. As for Portugal. The Man…so good! Oh, and Elk. Yeah, you guys need to either break up or be less blatantly unoriginal.