Newly Charted Islands at the El Rey Theatre
I don’t usually talk about opening acts, as the headliner generally gives me enough material to work with. I find it truly difficult in this case to stick to that pattern, as the three artists who performed at the El Rey Theatre on May 5 each played so brilliantly that they all deserve to be covered.
Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon (from Edmonton, Alberta, as he reminded us many times) and his polyester-masked DJ ‘on the cut’ Weez-L (clad in a Harry Potter T-shirt) began the show at 9 p.m. with a literally banging bass beat coming out of the speakers.
One may think it kind of odd to pair Islands, a band that rose from the ashes of its quirky synth-rock predecessor The Unicorns, with the unfiltered hip-hop assault of Cadence Weapon.
However, one song into his set, I was fairly impressed. Four songs in, I was dancing. By the last two tracks, everyone in the room, from a large man with dreadlocks and heavily tattooed arms to the striped-sweater-wearing 20-something with the horn-rimmed glasses next to me, was totally enveloped in the combined energy of Cadence Weapon’s incredible delivery and DJ Weez-L’s unbelievable scratching.
The transition from Cadence Weapon to Berkeley’s Why? could not have been smoother. Led by Yoni Wolf, Why? plays an in-between of hip-hop and a melodic piano-and-guitar-based rock, and thus an in-between of Cadence Weapon and Islands. They played the majority of their critically acclaimed 2005 release ‘Elephant Eyelash’ to a very receptive audience, many of whom were clearly at the show to see Why? as much as Islands.
Josiah Wolf, Yoni’s brother, nearly stole the show with his multitasking: he played the drums brilliantly, going above and beyond basic 4/4 beats, while simultaneously playing fairly complex xylophone lines and singing backup vocals.
Yoni himself dazzled and kept the audience rapt with his vocals and mesmerizing lyrical showmanship.
Guitarist Matt Meldon rounded out the trio and kept the melodies flowing, song after beautiful song. It’s clear, after seeing them live why Why? doesn’t want to be branded as a hip-hop act; they aren’t solely so. They concluded their set to fervent applause and made way for Islands.
Islands got off to a disappointingly slow start. This was purely a set list issue, as their first few songs transitioned poorly from the momentum Cadence Weapon and Why? had built up.
Islands picked up the pace about a third of the way into their set; vocalist/guitarist/former Unicorn Nick Diamonds himself called it ‘the moment [we] have all been waiting for.’
The group then dove right into ‘Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone,’ one of the hallmarks of their recently released debut album ‘Return To Sea.’ The song includes a lengthy rap-laden interlude, and recreating the song onstage was a spectacle that enthused the crowd into an uproar. The rap portion of the song was extended and included a welcome reemergence of Yoni and Cadence Weapon, as well as the surprise Los Angeles-based rapper Busdriver, who rhymes on the actual album track and another rapper whom I am unfamiliar with. Through the course of the song, various band members gave other band members piggy-back rides. Piggy-back rides became an accepted part of the show, as they recurred many more times as a tangible testament to the off-kilter fun that the musicians were clearly having.
From ‘Where There’s a Will’ on, Islands was spot on. They played nearly all the remainder of their debut, all seven members by this point having a ball with the songs. In particular, Stephen and Alex Chow on stage left, with their violins and violas, stood out, hopping around like mad, in addition to Patrick Gregoire and his rollicking bass clarinet on stage right.
Somewhere in the middle of the show, in honor of Cinco de Mayo, a kid no older than 13 or 14 got onstage to demolish a large cat pi