Published Mar 05, 2016No one said it was easy to be an independent musician, and seeing Eleanor Friedberger live at the Cobalt on March 4, that unease was palpable.
Refreshingly, she started her set a few minutes ahead of schedule, an event as rare as a unicorn at concerts like this, thoughtfully electing not to waste any time of those who braved what she referred to as a shitty, shitty night in a thoroughly drenched Vancouver. In hindsight, it's not clear if that decision was a courtesy to her fans or merely the result of nerves.
Make no mistake, even just looking at her three solo albums and not her illustrious time with the Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger is one of the most brilliant songwriters of our generation, and when she put her acoustic guitar down to project the rapid fire poetry of "Roosevelt Island" from her debut solo album, 2011's Last Summer, her lyrical prowess was undeniable. Yet, there were a couple things holding her show back.
For a start, to paraphrase a line from Almost Famous, there is nothing controversial about her backing band whatsoever. Their name is Icewater, the second most boring drink in the world next to water without ice, and it suited them. They've been her band for a couple years now, and played a big role in shaping her third solo album, January's New View, which was recorded live to tape in a barn studio in upstate New York. Their style is a country-tinged nostalgia indebted to the likes of Gram Parsons and Gene Clark, with an emphasis on Wurlitzer and clean guitar tones. It's nice enough, but a little homogenous, which became a bit of a problem.
Following a solo acoustic guitar set of humble indie folk singer-songwriter ballads from local mainstay Rolla Olak, Icewater opened the show. Neither guitarist Malcolm Perkins nor bassist Jonathan Rosen had the most tuneful of vocals, but together with keyboardist Michael Rosen and drummer Noah Hecht, they built some solid textures instrumentally, underpinned by solid drumming and frequent two-hand method split between a small synth and two vintage keyboards. Despite their obvious skill delivering a pristine '70s pop rock sound, their set mostly blended together.
The void in front of the stage through most of Icewater's half-hour set was filled as everyone pushed forward in anticipation of Friedberger, but the monotonous feeling, given the identical instrumentation in all of their songs, ended up carrying over into her set. Case in point: the funky clavinet line that simmers throughout the studio recording of "Roosevelt Island" and the reversing piano on "I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight" were both essentially replaced by Rosen's Wurlitzer, making them sound the same as everything else, almost too polished and streamlined. If you closed your eyes, they sounded pretty much like listening to Friedberger's record, which isn't always the best thing, especially when your lead singer is exuding such offbeat anxiety. And, boy howdy, did she seem anxious.
Friedberger spent half of her set without her guitar, just singing, but she never seemed comfortable. She sang most of "Two Versions of Tomorrow" and "Your Word" with her hands behind her back, and, after finishing her vocals for "Because I Asked You," she crouched down and tapped her quads until the song was over. In one brief vocal pause during "Cathy with the Curly Hair," she put her hand in and out of her pocket, wiped her face, and then rubbed her hands together. Further betraying her nerves, her banter was often slurred and mumbled, but it all came out when she sang, vulnerable and self-conscious but detailed and keenly expressed, and the modest crowd was generally onboard with it all.
Friedberger received a warm applause for the effort on "Roosevelt Island," which led to a sincere thanks, and a relay of the muddled history of False Creek and the Cobalt (where there used to be strippers, but now they draw burlesque girls), as told to her by an old friend from the area. She considered Vancouver to be glamorous and exotic, both gritty and futuristic. Later, in a moment of good humour, after commenting on a receipt she found stuck to her shoe, she dedicated "All Known Things" to a cat with a cone around its neck.
The biggest moment of crowd interaction came during "My Mistakes," when a middle-aged dude spilled his drink on the stage near her pedals, and he admirably did his best to mop it up with the vest off his own back. Friedberger seemed a little thrown off by it, saying "19-something" instead of the year mentioned in the song, and later, mid-song, told the guy, during his cleaning attempt, that it was okay. After the song, she commented on his thoughtful gesture, and thought it was cool that he took her song about learning from her mistakes so literally right before her eyes.
Warm as it was though, that was just one among many awkward moments. She battled a couple feedback issues early on in their set, which she dealt with well, but when they left the stage to await the encore at the end, the house system started playing a Harry Nilsson song, forcing Friedberger to ask if it was okay if they played a couple more.
Thankfully she did, because their take on "A Long Walk" was one of their best. Pared down from the studio recording, it started off with just Friedberger and her acoustic guitar until Icewater returned to the stage to hammer home its climax. Capping off the evening with "Stare at the Sun" from 2013's Personal Record, Friedberger's brilliance was as obvious as her earlier anxiety.