subvocal and Moira Smiley & VOCO @ The Brink Lounge – October 21, 2009
Photos by Karl Tollefson
Subvocal treated the audience to a generously long set, due in part to one of VOCO’s members being stranded in a snow storm in Minneapolis. Subvocal is not just music you listen to, it washes over and envelops you in large waves of sound. Even more remarkable is that all that sound is generated from two instruments and two vocalists.
Over time, subvocal’s live shows have really evened out. Guitarist Mark Adkins now has full command over the complex series of delays and reverbs that give subvocal it’s signature sound. Cellist Steve Pingry summons deep, full tones, no easy feat for an instrument that’s difficult to pick up electronically. Adding rich colorizations to Adkins, and using ample amounts of reverb and delay himself, Pingry often grins like a prankster who knows you’re about to discover his secret. Vocalist Vanessa Tortolano adds ethereal and sensuous harmonies, often singing in syllabic tones and becoming another instrument altogether, seducing listeners and drawing them into the subvocal shrine of dark sonic beauty.
“Ghost” is still a standout, the one track featuring Tortolano on lead vocals. It has such a beautiful melody to match Adkins’ moody guitar figure. The real treat is when they pull out their rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood,” which they seldom do. I have seen them perform this song several times and each time it’s brought a tear to my eye. They really capture the essence of the lyrics, dramatizing it and making it their own. It’s one of the pinnacle moments of local music, or any music for that matter, that I have experienced.
Subvocal recorded this show and a few others, I believe, and plan on releasing a live CD. They are also at work on a new studio CD, the first one in several years. One reason for that is that it’s difficult for a band like this to get notice because there are few suitable venues. The Brink Lounge has proven to be one place where people come to listen intently, the closeness of the stage to the seats heightening the intimacy. It’s hard to imagine Madison without the Brink Lounge now as it definitely has its niche.
The crowd was equally receptive to Moira Smiley and VOCO who soldiered through the first half of their set without a member and with a new cellist/vocalist playing only her fourth show with them. They are on a Midwestern tour and their set was fairly spontaneous, drawing from old East European staples and songs of their own. They too, had sparse instrumentation, Smiley donning a banjo or an accordion, but mostly just singing. They also do body percussion, where they slap parts of their body, creating a percussive ensemble. It’s amazing that, with so little instrumentation, that they sing so flawlessly in tune. Never was there a harmonic waver that my ears could detect. They made it look easy, singing complex, four-part vocals in perfect time. I highly reccomend them next time they pass through.