CQAF: Desert Hearts, Silver Jews

An unpredictable and exquisite night of indie and alt-rock in Belfast's Black Box

Hot, sticky air, and people’s bodies pressed close together - Belfast's Black Box has become a veritable love-fest. The reason? People are falling in love with music again. In an inspired pairing, Desert Hearts and Silver Jews tease and cajole all manner of sounds and sensations, with the heated excitement of a first date.

Desert Hearts have been around for quite a while now, and have a deserved reputation for being cantankerous and unpredictable. Depending on your point of view, this can make for a supremely exciting performance, or a bitter and gruelling endurance test. 

From the outset, it’s apparent that all is not well in the Desert Hearts camp. Frontman Charlie Mooney has a scowl plastered across his face, and interaction between band and audience is minimal. Eventually it becomes apparent that there has been some dispute over the sound levels, with Silver Jews exercising their prerogative as headliners to stake out volume as their own territory. 

So whilst Desert Hearts might not be as loud as they like, any frustration is channelled directly into the music. Mooney and bassist Rosin Stewart become ever more animated and the tension in their music becomes increasingly appealing. 

Their sound is hard to pin down - it’s not quite indie-rock and it’s not quite post-rock - but make no mistake: whatever the name for it, Desert Hearts are the absolute masters of it. Their ability to conjure a range of musical textures from a three-piece line up is breathtaking, whilst the songs themselves have an emotional depth that resonates long after the songs have finished. 

At the end of their set, Mooney grumpily drops his guitar against the amp, causing it to emit a brief but piercing blast of feedback. Whether this action is born of frustration, or resignation, Mooney can rest assured knowing that tonight was a job well done. This is easily one of the most impressive performances by a local band in quite some time.

Nashville’s Silver Jews are the brainchild of songwriter David Berman and former Pavement legend Stephen Malkmus. However, Malkmus has long since parted ways with the band, allowing Berman to hone his increasingly impressive craft. 

Over the course of seven albums, Berman’s Silver Jews have moved from shambolic indie-rock (much in the vein of Pavement) to a sophisticated alt-country sound. 

Despite critical acclaim from all corners, Silver Jews have always operated on the periphery, Berman cutting a reclusive figure, occasionally emerging with more idiosyncratic songs and stories, before disappearing. But the band had never played live before, remaining a studio project for all concerned. 

So whilst it was surprising when a full tour was announced, one has only to look at the recent recorded output of the band to see the confidence that has been growing within their ranks.

Berman (resplendent in a rather smart brown suit and oversized sunglasses) strides onto the stage, his lanky frame towering over the rest of the band, whose smart suits and pretty dresses cause them to resemble a bunch of Nashville session musicians. 

From the second they start, it’s patently clear that this is no pre-packaged Nashville sound. 'I’d like to dedicate all these songs to everyone who was dragged along by a friend to see the Silver Jews,' begins Berman, prompting a hearty chuckle from the audience. Many at tonight's show have, no doubt, been dragged along by an over-enthusiastic companion. 

This mixture of humour and truth runs through all of Berman’s songs, causing the listener to smirk and laugh, but simultaneously wince at the truth in his words. Over the course of an hour or so, Berman paints little vignettes populated by the kind of characters that have come along to see him tonight. We are his audience, but we are also the kind of people who populate his songs. 

Lyrics about falling in love, drinking too much when we know we shouldn’t, and being sick into a brown paper bag highlight Berman’s ability to observe the everyday lives of the indie-rock generation, and relay it back to us, with all its glory and failings.

Whilst Berman is making us laugh and think at the same time, the music is simply stunning, two guitars mixing with keyboards and bass to create a shining, shimmering cascade of notes. People are singing along, or simply gazing at the stage, open-mouthed at how beautiful it all is, and the band seem taken aback by the response they recieve. 

The audience love the Silver Jews, and the Silver Jews are falling in love with the audience. With the last note still ringing in the air, Berman announces, 'We have no more songs left. Sorry!' One gets the feeling he’s sincere, otherwise this gig might have gone on a lot longer.

Then we all stagger out into the night, smiles plastered across our faces, wonderfully in love with music again. Silver Jews manage to turn a well respected but ultimately inessential band into a thing of wonder, forever blowing any sense of their being one of those kind of bands you like, and must get around to listening to, but never do. 

One can only imagine how many Silver Jews and Desert Hearts albums found their way onto stereos all over Belfast tonight. I’d expect it was quite a few. 

Steven Rainey