CONCERT REVIEW Punk Rock and Folk, All Rolled into One

Eleni Mandell Is on ‘Fire’

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Los Angeles artist Eleni Mandell played new material from Artificial Fire at TT the Bear’s Place in Cambridge on Sunday.
S. Balaji Mani—The Tech

Eleni Mandell

TT the Bear’s Place

March 8, 2009

Girl power incarnate Eleni Mandell is currently on tour promoting her latest record, Artificial Fire. Stopping in Cambridge last Sunday, Mandell and her band provided an energetic performance and stayed true to the intricacies of their studio recordings.

As a quick nod to her previous album, Miracle of Five, Mandell opened with the old favorite “My Twin.” The slower paced but emotionally intense ballad featured Mandell’s entire vocal range. It was exciting to see her band interpret the older song after working on a more rock-influenced and heavy work like Artificial Fire.

Ryan Feves (bass) had played on Mandell’s previous albums, and continued to be a musical driving force despite his subdued and meek stage presence. Artificial Fire’s scintillating guitar riffs were furnished by Jeremy Drake (guitar), who nailed each and every one of them note for note during the live performance. Drake successfully converted the studio-recorded textured horns of “My Twin” into flexible guitar passages. Though Kevin Fitzgerald drummed on the album and on most of the tour dates, his obligation to tour with Circle Jerks allowed DJ Bonebrake an opportunity to fill in on drums (Bonebrake had worked on Mandell’s earlier albums, as well).

The band had obviously rehearsed enough with Bonebrake, and his imitation of Fitzgerald’s well-composed rhythms was superb, especially on the complicated hi-hat stuttering found on the atmospheric tune “I Love Planet Earth.” This song followed a gentle performance of “Front Door,” and included the same segue that is found on the album: Drake resorts to his guitar effects to provide a spacey whirlwind of feedback to seamlessly tie the loose ends of each song together.

Mandell included a decent number of faster songs, managing to convey the punk-rock demeanor she’d adopted for the new record. The brash and bold “Cracked” drove some people to dance and others to marvel and Mandell’s rock star pose. Leaning back while strumming lazily at her guitar, she evoked at once Kim Gordon and PJ Harvey (her black lace dress and purple tights cemented the resemblance). “Little Foot” and “Bigger Burn,” both occurring early in the set, got the energy in the room flowing and allowed Drake to break out of his shell and dance around on stage.

The rest of the set contained more material from Artificial Fire, except for the crowd favorite “Pauline,” from Mandell’s earlier album Thrill. Though it’s considered a much racier and dirtier track (“a cheatin’ song”) than most of Mandell’s catalog, there was no ounce of irony as she admitted to the innocent Pauline, “your man got down/and your man told me/let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” Though she wasn’t playing for a full house, Mandell was in good spirits and clearly happy to perform for those who came to the show. She even publicly recognized that she was “talking more than usual,” and she often led the audience into a song with a quip or short anecdote. Before “It Wasn’t the Time (It Was the Color)” Mandell took a moment to talk about her native Los Angeles, which highlighted a disagreement between her and Bonebrake (another LA native) over the “beauty of concrete.” She introduced the song as a story about vivid, colorful memories from her youth combined with the gooey gossip of her first crush (“he kissed me that day / by the pizza place”).

Beyond Mandell’s command of the stage (even if it was, admittedly, a small venue) was her ability to keep her voice authentic in the live setting. Small clubs typically deliver mediocre sound, but the band was able to play hard while allowing Mandell’s voice to soar above the mix. Her ability to avoid losing her voice in the sonic collage of her backing band connected with the sparse audience and proved that she was a capable vocalist with style.

The band closed with “Two Faces,” but Mandell came back to play a solo song, “Salt Truck,” which was a personal request of an eager fan. Assuring that she hadn’t forgotten the old song, Mandell calmly closed the night enveloping the room with her conversational lyrics, making for a great evening and cementing her integrity as an artist who can sing as sweetly or as menacingly as she wants.