Review: The Clientele with The Wooden Birds; March 4, 2010; Casbah, San Diego

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The Thursday night crowd that came to see The Clientele at the Casbah was bubbling. Half of them had just come from a successful SoundDiego launch party; the other half were presumably just happy to be celebrating the unofficial start of the weekend with syrupy pop exported from England. It was a fun crowd to be a part of, and especially fun to hear the chatter peppered by the English accents of a few of The Clientele’s San Diego British expat fans.

The floor was packed by the time Austin’s The Wooden Birds took the stage and started pouring out their gentle country-infused pop. Bandleader Andrew Kenney’s singing is airier than Sam Beam’s, and it tended to float right out of the room before I could catch it. The vocals cut through the boozy chatter much better when their female guitarist joined in, as in the back porch sing-along “She Was Seven I Was Seventeen.” The Wooden Birds are great, but they’re easier to enjoy sitting cross-legged in a park drinking lemonade than in a noisy, dimly lit rock club.

Between acts, the English accents disappeared and I realized that pretty much all of them were up on stage setting up, including the porcelain blonde (Mel Draisey) that I had seen charming a couple of blokes out on the smoking patio. Even the lone Brit still at the bar was just a band member interrogating the bartender about the value of his drink tickets. So much for the U.K. representation in SoCal.

The Clientele are touring behind a great new album, Bonfires on the Heath, but started with an Alex Chilton song, according to an announcement by Draisey, who — let me just get this out of my system right now — is gorgeous. Every guy in the room was transfixed.

After wrapping up their cover of Big Star’s “Nighttime,” they broke into their own catalog of nostalgic, dreamy pop, starting with “Since K Got Over Me.” This song is instantly familiar from the first time you hear it, sparking false memories of singing it with your dad on a long car ride when it plays on the oldies station. The 60s nostalgia doesn’t end there. Well-dressed singer Alasdair MacLean has a name like an aristocrat and a voice like John Lennon, and like Lennon he coolly deflected a short episode of Beatle-mania when a girl shouted a marriage proposal from the crowd. “Who are you addressing that to?” he replied, then pointed to his bass player. “I think he will.”

I don’t want to harp on the Beatles comparisons, but you can’t help but catch a heavy dose of “Strawberry Fields” in The Clientele’s sound. This isn’t a bad thing, if you like The Beatles — and who doesn’t? But you have to really like mellow Beatles, specifically, to dig The Clientele, because even though they dabble a little in psychedelic territory on “Sketch” and throw down a dash of funk in “I Wonder Who We Are,” most of their stuff is super breezy. In “Harvest Time,” for example, the loping clang of electric guitar sounds like wind chimes on a porch, while a sitar buzzes like cicadas in the background. I loved the show, and judging by the occasional incongruous scream, most of the crowd shared my enthusiasm, but I did also catch (not literally) a girl falling asleep standing up. Maybe too much mellow for her?

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