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Concert Review: Unwed Sailor (August 2, 2003, Des Moines, IA)

There’s a solidity and honesty to Unwed Sailor’s music that I always find appealing, and that came through perfectly tonight.

This summer was a bit of a strange one for me, for several reasons. One of the big ones would have to be that this summer was the first time in 8 years that I didn’t attend the Cornerstone Festival. If you’ve spent anytime in the past perusing the site, or have seen any of the time and effort I’ve put into past Cornerstone excursions, you’ll understand why this was a big thing for me. In the long run, it was probably for the best, and I think next year will find me returning to the festival with a newfound appreciation and sense of purpose. Needless to say, however, not seeing the 30+ bands that make up my usual Cornerstone itinerary left a rather large void in my summer experiences.

Sure, a few of those artists made it to my neck of the woods, either on their way to or returning from Cornerstone. Pedro The Lion and Denison Witmer, both Cornerstone faves of mine, made it up to Omaha, but both came right around the time that I was without a reliable set of wheels. So, in some ways, this Unwed Sailor show was my only real link to Cornerstone. And perhaps more accurately, this show was my Cornerstone, as it had all of the good qualities of the fest (traveling with friends, hanging with cool bands) and none of the bad ones (trying to sleep in sauna-like tents, Johnny on the Spot, crappy punk bands).

I was making the trip in great company, with Joel, Liz, and Jared, three individuals with whom I don’t get to spend nearly enough time (and who exhibit a great deal of grace in putting up with my little quirks). The trip out to Des Moines was great, with plenty of great conversation ranging from the mutual love that Jared and I discovered we share for early ’90s Christian industrial (Circle of Dust, Brainchild, etc.) to the movies of Carman to Romanian orphanages.

We arrived in Des Moines, and quickly caught up with the Unwed Sailor crew: Johnathon Ford, Nic Tse, Matt Putman, and their new keyboardist Brooks. The name of the venue was Vaudeville Mews, and it turned out to be a pretty nice place, the sort of intimate little venue that looked like it would suit Unwed Sailor’s music quite nicely. So far, the night certainly held all the makings to be quite memorable.

At this point, I should confess that I didn’t really pay too much attention to the two opening bands, Lukaska (IIRC) and Senator Kelly. Of the two, Senator Kelly was the most interesting to me, playing some dreamy, Rhodes-driven pop in the same vein as Ester Drang. Lukaska was just a little too close to the butt-rock end of the spectrum for my tastes, with a few too many Creed-isms. Jared and I spent most of Lukaska’s set just talking about this and that, but primarily music and film. Being filmmaker himself, Jared’s pretty knowledgable about the silver screen, and I always enjoy our conversations. After Lukaska, we spent some time talking to Brooks, an incredibly nice and humble fellow, and learned that he had only joined the band just a few days prior to the show. After that, it was down to the bar to get a little drinky-poo and catch up with Liz and Joel.

At this point, I should make a totally random aside and mention that I’m always amused by people who walk into a venue just looking for a place to get drunk, and who are completely oblivious to the fact that there’s a show going on (as if the loud music coming from the stage isn’t enough of a clue). Several people like that came and went, sticking out like sore thumbs the whole time. They’re usually loud and boisterous and hoping to get some tail, which is fine, but not when people are trying to watch a band. Just a little courtesy is all I’m asking. I’m sure they’d get pissed if someone was making a ruckus down at the ol’ sports bar while they were watching the big game.

I should also mention that this was the moment when Jared revealed his killer Jiminy Glick impression. Honestly, it’s something to behold.

Unwed Sailor began taking the stage and the four of us made our way to the balcony to get situated, ending up with perfect seats for the entire show. Unwed Sailor took a little longer than expected to get set up, due to some technical difficulties. But after about 10 minutes or so, the lights dimmed, Pinocchio started playing on the screen, and the music began.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly.

At first, I was a bit skeptical — I mean, really, Pinocchio?! — but as the show went on, I found myself growing more and more entranced by the whole experience. Given that the band’s latest release is a concept album about a marionette who falls in love with a music box, it does make sense that they’d show “Pinocchio.” But I don’t even think the band had any idea just how well the movie would complement their set, which consisted mainly of songs from their new album (The Marionette and the Music Box), as well older material from The Faithful Anchor and Firecracker. But the visuals seemed to perfectly echo the music, and vice versa.

During the darker scenes, such as the devilish carnival, the music took on a darker, more insistent tone. In fact, I was surprised at just how aggressive and noisy Unwed Sailor would become at these times, as their music is usually of the mellow, lulling variety. During the lighter scenes, such as the appearance of the Blue Fairy, the music became almost playful and childlike. And in the final moments of the show, as we watched Pinocchio set out to find Geppetto, the music became hopeful and pensive, ending their performance on a perfect note.

This was probably the best Unwed Sailor show I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen quite a few. One word I’ve always used to describe Unwed Sailor’s music is “pure.” They certainly aren’t one of the flashier instrumental bands out there, and compared to some of their peers, their music seems downright quaint (especially on the new album). However, there’s a solidity and honesty to their music that I always find appealing, and that came through perfectly tonight.

After the show, we spent a few minutes talking with Johnathon Ford. Although we’ve exchanged a few e-mails, I’d never actually met him, and he turned out to be quite an affable fellow. When I asked him if they had planned their setlist around the part of the movie that was shown, I was amazed when he revealed they had done no such thing. That was surprising, considering how well the music and visuals meshed (so well, in fact, that I don’t feel comfortable chalking it up to mere coincidence).

Ford revealed some future plans for the Marionette concept, including an animated film based upon the paintings that grace the album’s deluxe packaging. He also mentioned that a dance instructor in Oklahoma had taken the Marionette album and turned it into a ballet for her class. Even after having spent two years molding and shaping the album’s concept, it was obvious that Ford was still excited about its possibilities, and I think I got a glimpse as to why.

The art had taken on a life of its own, inspiring those who heard it to create, revealing to those who listened something of their own lives (I know it did for me). Leaving the venue and preparing for the long, midnight drive back to Omaha (which involved Dr. Pepper, a Milky Way, and some Rolos), I felt refreshed by that, knowing that I had witnessed Something truly special and unique in that dark little club.

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