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Sea Wolf's night at the museum

The L.A.-based singer-songwriter delivers a magical set amid dinosaurs and exotic animals.

January 07, 2008|Sarah Tomlinson | Special to The Times

Sea Wolf's show Friday at the Natural History Museum featured the kind of charming eccentrics and tender interludes that fill the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter's music and give his songs the resonance of a beautifully observed novel.

Maybe it was the audience drawn to the museum's First Fridays series and its unique opportunity to enjoy a lecture, dinner and live music amid a display of dinosaurs and exotic animals. Or perhaps it was the Sea Wolf fans.

Most of the nearly 1,000 people who braved the night's rain seemed already to be devotees of Alex Church, who has performed as Sea Wolf since striking out in 2003 from the local indie rock band Irving.

But it was remarkable on a Friday night to see a young man holding a ball of yarn as a friend knitted during the break between bands, a man wearing yellow rain pants, and a fellow spinning his date while dancing under the shadow of a dinosaur fossil in the museum's central hall.

These could have been scenes from Sea Wolf's 2007 debut, "Leaves in the River," which Church and his five-piece band played almost in its entirety during an impassioned hour-plus performance.

The set opened with new lovers strolling through a rainy Halloween on the album's title track, an indie-rock lullaby featuring Church's meditative vocals over gentle guitar and cello.

The narrator of "I Made a Resolution" vows to give up sad songs despite a troubled family past as intricately orchestrated keyboard and guitar weave a joyous mood. With their tales of gypsies, journeyers and couples measuring their love by the seasons, both old-time-like rockers such as "Winter Windows" and bittersweet ballads including "Black Leaf Falls" had simple power.

The room full of caribou, coyotes and harbor seals in their natural habitats was the perfect setting in which to hear these romantic stories unfold. "It definitely is the coolest place we've ever played," Church said from a stage set up before a herd of bison.

The majesty of the setting was tempered somewhat by the museum's struggle to accommodate the number of people who attended.

A traffic jam clogged the route to the parking lot. Once inside, attendees faced a long line to watch Sea Wolf and opener Afternoons play in a room that could hold only 500.

But screens in the main hall showed the bands' performances, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

By the time Church and company returned for a two-song encore, the night's mostly subdued fans had loosened up, and one couple danced exuberantly before a display of black-tailed deer during a gorgeous, slightly countrified cover of Echo & the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon."

With Sea Wolf just beginning to break out nationally, it felt like one of those rare, magical shows that those who experienced it will be talking about for years to come.

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