LIVE REVIEW: Owen & Birthmark – PhilaMOCA (Philadelphia) – 9.17.16
by Alex Mazzaferro
Like many DIY venues, the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA) does a lot with a little. The former tombstone showroom turned art space regularly hosts estimable bands playing for packed crowds, but it does so without the infrastructure—and, thankfully, the overhead—of a corporate venue. A case in point is the PhilaMOCA stage. Fronting a blank backdrop and adorned with minimal lighting, the stage is usually enlivened by a video projector, which pairs the bands’ performances with trippy visuals. In my limited experience attending shows at PhilaMOCA, these visuals have included screenings of surreal TV shows from the ’70s and ’80s. Unmoored from their already tenuous contexts by being muted and resoundtracked by the live band, shows like H.R. Pufnstuf blossom to their full acidy potential. And occasionally, the music and the visuals align in magical ways.
Saturday, September 17, 2016 was one such night. When Nate Kinsella, who performs under the moniker Birthmark, took the PhilaMOCA stage to open the day’s second sold-out show headlined by his cousin Mike Kinsella, performing as Owen, the projection the audience had been enjoying since doors opened continued playing. The visual in question was a fuzzy, VHS-quality Bob Ross Joy of Painting instructional video, and I for one was glad it continued. Bob’s landscape paintings are slow burners. His signature “wet-on-wet” technique is all about layering, and in order to fully appreciate what he’s up to in a given episode, you really need to see it through to the end. It’s almost as though Bob took an odd kind of pleasure in the twists and turns of his method: his classic move was to muck up a beautiful sky with what initially appeared to be nothing more than black smudges only to reward the true believer when subsequent, equally tossed off brushstrokes transformed those smudges into shimmering autumn trees.
Birthmark’s set was special because it functioned according to a very similar logic. Sometimes flanked by collaborators, Nate instead appeared solo, shifting between guitar, bass, drums, keys, sampler, and voice as he crafted the loops necessary to recreate his mathy, off-beat brand of chamber pop. Like a Bob Ross painting, Nate’s live show is a slow burn—so slow in fact that he only had time to play four songs. Beginning with “Your Imperfections,” he layered elements—sonic smudges, we might call them—that demanded a kind of faith on the part of the audience that they would crystallize and constellate into meaningful shape. As each song swelled into coherence, its component parts shimmered in a kind of harmony with Bob’s projected canvass. On “Sounds Can Be So Alarming,” the only track he played from his excellent latest album How You Look When You’re Falling Down (2015), Nate masterfully performed drums and synth simultaneously over a looped counter-rhythmic chimes melody. On “Stuck,” he complicated the seeming familiarity of a driving bassline with dizzying time changes and challenging woodwind chords. And on Antibodies (2012) standout “Shake Hands,” he rewarded the audience’s patience with heartbreaking string crescendos, poignant lyrics, and groovy drums. Checking in on Bob’s progress in-between songs, one sensed that the similarly humble, affable, and soft-voiced Nate knew a kindred spirit when he saw one.
The Joy of Painting projections enriched Birthmark’s performance tremendously. Yet they also illuminated key differences between the two artists. For one thing, Nate’s music wanders to far darker places—dissonant rests, references to “the occasional suicidal thought”—than Bob’s forests of “happy little trees.” The pairing certainly prompted me to appreciate the intricacy of what I might have dismissed, in my more cynical moods, as a step above paint-by-numbers. But the signal difference between the two is that Nate is a true virtuoso who makes his playing look anything but easy or replicable. Both men orchestrate stabs of color into a beautiful whole, but Bob is an instructor, whereas Nate is putting on a clinic.
The projection that accompanied Owen’s set was less immediately evocative than the one chosen for (or by) Birthmark. But PhilaMOCA’s default backdrop, which films itself to produce copies of copies of the stage, nonetheless had a certain resonance with Mike Kinsella’s creeping-ivy guitar arpeggiations and witty, recursive lyrics. Fittingly punctuated by the crack of beer cans being opened, the set featured a satisfying array of songs from Owen’s now eight-album deep catalogue. Crumpled in a folding chair beneath the microphone in the claustrophobic heat of the packed art space, Mike threaded his way through early classics like “Breaking Away” and “Bags of Bones,” mid-career gems like “The Armoire” and “Good Friends, Bad Habits,” and highlights from this summer’s The King of Whys like “The Desperate Act” and “Settled Down.” He chose to play an electric guitar, a beautiful Gibson SG through a Fender Twin, rather than his usual acoustic guitar, and his busy fingerpicking translated nicely to that reverb-dense aesthetic.
On stage Mike strikes the right balance of warmth and reserve. On the one hand, he exudes a stoicism that reminds his audience that music is how he makes his living and that it’s not always as glamorous as we might think. On the other hand, he’s got enough charm and good humor to carry him through both misremembered lyrics and the well-intentioned lead balloon one-liners lofted from the peanut gallery. His songwriting manages a similar equilibrium, marrying the comic mundanity of domestic drama with the ruthless sadness of middle age. He set the tone by opening with the paired tracks that close his 2013 album L’Ami du Peuple, “Where Do I Begin?” and “Vivid Dreams.” Briefly second-guessing himself, he halted and laughed his way through the latter’s signature line: “How long have I been sleeping? / I’m a dad and my dad’s dead.” Perhaps most moving was “Love Is Not Enough,” a song whose hardnosed take on married life—“and the babies won’t stop crying / and leaving ain’t an option now / and I can’t remember the last time we touched”—is belied by Mike’s unique ability to make his commitment to family seem downright cool.
Toward the end of his set Mike referenced a conversation he and Nate had had earlier in the day about the enthusiasm and unpretentiousness of Philly audiences. Anyone in the room familiar with the vibrant DIY scene made possible by PhilaMOCA and R5 Productions knew that that was more than a touring musician’s stock crowd compliment. With the transcendent-yet-workmanlike quality of both Birthmark and Owen in mind—the former’s Rossian sonic layering, the latter’s tragicomic performance of strenuous self-reflection—that remark felt particularly satisfying.