One might have fears going into a Calla show, after seeing the crowd all dressed in black, the alt-goths fixing their hair in the men’s bathroom, and the show beginning (and to a degree, remaining) in the dark. But on April 14th at Bowery Ballroom (QRO venue review), the trio proved those fears wrong, with an emotional-without-being-emo, dark-without-being-goth, and rocking-without-being-preening concert.
About half of Calla’s set were tracks off their most recent release, this year’s Strength in Numbers (QRO review), including opening the set with Strength’s opener, “Sanctify”, and closing (pre-encore) with Strength’s closer, “Dancers In the Dust”. The melodic Strength was given more force live, while not losing its harmony. “Defenses Down” was obviously not as subdued as on the album, but that only made it more powerful, while the middle of the set was its most melancholy and emotionally gripping part, thanks to back-to-back-to-back Strength numbers, “Sylvia’s Song”, “Stand Paralyzed”, and “A Sure Shot”.
But the evening probably reached its hind point near the end (where shows should), with pre-Strength songs “It Dawned On Me”, “Swagger” (both off their prior release, 2005’s Collisions), and “Televised” (off of 2003’s Televise). Earlier Calla records had owed more to their live work, and correspondingly those earlier songs were particularly effective live. “Dawned” had an eye-opening aurora of sound that wasn’t forced, “Swagger” and Strength’s “Simone” were the night’s most driving pieces, and they drove the audience straight into the night’s real center, the encompassing “Televised”. And the show’s encore, “Fear of Fireflies”, may have been the show’s oldest number (the only one that night off of 2001’s Scavengers), but its fine alt-country grooves were only heightened by the additional sonic power.
The night’s main error was not in their selection of old songs, but of their selection of new ones. While remembering to play their excellent older U.K. singles, like “Televised”, “It Dawned On Me”, and Televise’s “Strangler”, unfortunately Calla somehow managed to skip over Strength’s incredible first single, “Bronson”. While “Sanctify” was better than on Strength, it still had an emo air about it, and the band could have opened the night with any of the other three album-opening songs they played that night (“Strangler”, “Dawned”, and “Fear of Fireflies”). And while the six-minute-long “Televised” can sustain interest and intensity, not so much with “Dancers In the Dust”, when it follows “Televised”, and is stretched to the same length.
The Brooklyn-based Calla is actually rooted in North Texas, and yet has found their biggest success on the other side of the pond, in England. This mix has kept the band from sliding too far into goth-rock navel-gazing, indie-country crooning, or guitar-driven atmospherics. Instead, the trio has remained haunting, melodic, and gripping, and such was the case on Saturday night at Bowery Ballroom. While the dark clothes and dark stage may make one think they’ve heard this song before, with Calla, you really haven’t.