SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — After the fifth song of the Cages' Southland debut concert Monday night at the Coach House, Richard Aven was--for the second time in the show--calling for the engineer to make sound adjustments and, for the umpteenth time, fiddling with one of his own many instruments, a clarinet in this case.
It was a full minute before Aven was satisfied with the sound quality. Meanwhile, the already thin crowd was receding further, and the few folks who remained were growing ever more impatient.
The scene was clear indication that the Cages, a young duo who scored a big record deal before they even cut a demo, have a ways to go before realizing the potential that Capitol Records obviously sees in them.
Since forming less than three years ago, the Cages have played precious few club shows before paying audiences. It shows.
While it's admirable on the one hand for a musician to be concerned about sound quality, finickiness can wear thin during a 55-minute performance, particularly with a crowd that may be largely unfamiliar with the group's material.
We know you're perfectionists, guys. But chill out.
On the Cages' debut CD, "Hometown," the biggest problem is not the songs themselves but that they often are muddled by overexhaustive orchestration. The songs came across more forcefully when stripped down to their bare elements Monday night by Aven and band mate Clayton Cages.
Even so, the Cages seemed so intent on re-creating the studio versions of the songs as closely as possible that they almost never allowed for spontaneity.
In any case, those in the audience who stuck it out for the entire 13-song set seemed to receive the group enthusiastically. Some even gave the Cages a standing ovation.
The moments they liked best seemed to come during the more whimsical numbers (further evidence that lightening up might not be a bad idea). "Too Tired," an atypically funny and cavalier song from the "Hometown" album, was greeted warmly, as were two songs, not on the CD, written in a similar vein.
One of those, "Life's Too Short," is a simple, hilarious ditty about snuffing out one's parents to cash in on their life insurance policy:
I'll take care of Mom
If you'll take care of Dad.
The insurance company will give us all the things we've never had
And I'll feel good ...
A far cry from the very serious stuff, with such very serious titles as "Peace and Rain," "Liberty" and "Lay Your Hand."
Whatever their flaws, Cages and Aven are obviously skilled musicians who can be not only funny but passionate when they allow themselves to be. They might be well advised to play on those strengths--and to ride the course of a concert, rather than try so hard to carefully orchestrate that course.
For starters, they might take note of Basic Black, a trio from Laguna Beach that performed before the Cages on Monday. Playing in what was announced as its own concert debut, Basic Black joked, rocked and crooned through a riveting and very promising 11-song set.
The band's wonderful chemistry created a fresh approach to standard musical forms. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Benjamin Tew has a penchant for catchy melodies and lyrics that are by turns tender ("Candlelight") and comic ("I'm Not Trying To Get Into Your Drawers"). Deannie Wood adds vocals that are beautiful and quirky, somewhat akin to Rickie Lee Jones'. Guitarist Jaime Isham is the musician in the group, taking the lead whether it's country twang, bluesy romp or rag. The trio bounced smoothly from genre to genre and mood to mood--and wasn't afraid to muff a line here or there and laugh about it.
Byron Nash, a young neo-folk musician from San Diego, opened the show, accompanied first by his own harmonica and acoustic guitar and later by a three-member band. There was little groundbreaking about his sound or his socio-political lyrics, but he played with a passion that elevated many of his songs.
Most impressive, though, were his interpretations of others' songs--a fierce, solo acoustic rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and, in commemoration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, a spirited medley with the band of "We Shall Overcome" and "When the Saints Go Marching In."