The last time I wrote about Magic Hero vs. Rock People, I observed how in its boundless ambition their debut album kind of lost sight of making the songs individually distinctive. Playing live was my prescription for improvement. Checking in with them last night, it was impressive how well they came over despite being on their third show ever. Their commitment to creating a spectacle is admirable -- they took the stage in robes and capes, distributed animal masks to the audience, and brought a slide projector. Not everything works perfectly yet. Their violin player couldn't get her instrument to work and sat this one out. But with all the bands in Austin who can barely be bothered to try (one of the other groups on the bill didn't even show up), always favor those who are way too ambitious over those who have no ambition at all.
Presentation is not to be overlooked, but the most important element to being a band is playing music. Magic Hero have a distinctive Nuggets sound, led by Farfisa organ and slow guitar droning. On their record they held themselves back somewhat with unchanging, somnambulant arrangements. Not so on stage. Greatly improved dynamics, with songs that reached big peaks and drums that built up and pulled out, made their tunes pop a great deal more in their live incarnations. High priest Donny Lang has a singing voice that grows on you slowly, but when he raises up into his dramatic upper register it cuts through the ominous midrange murk of the band in impressive fashion. I'd next like to see them find the bass player and guitarist more points to contribute melodically, but it was only their third show.
In the other room, The Fireball Show were demonstrating how to quickly grab a listener's attention and keep it. They sucked me in with a cover of "Way Down in the Hole," which is a Tom Waits tune and the theme song to "The Wire," only the greatest non-vampire slayer-related TV show ever. I really love that song -- I've been known to cover it from time to time myself -- but I wouldn't have been happy with a glorified karaoke rendition. The Fireball Show quickly proved their mettle with an arrangement that put their own spin on the tune, vocals that confidently reinterpreted the rhythm and melody, and different-sounding solos from both guitar players. That got me excited to hear some of their originals, and they didn't let down. The band hasn't picked a genre to constrain their creativity. There's elements of blues, border wave, indie rock, and jazz vocal scatting to them and they follow the songs forward rather than grinding everything down to fit into a single label designation. This confidence must stem in part from their dapper frontman, who works the mic assuredly during songs and between them. Looking forward to hearing more.