Charles Alas
964 Natoma
April 28, 2003

Review by Kyle Monday

San Francisco's Quietest Band Quietly Disbands?

My introduction to 964 Natoma was the April 18th Charles Atlas show with Park Avenue Music and Mark Dwinell. Squeezed into an alley around the corner from Slim's, 964 Natoma is the best uknown venue for improvisational and experimental music in San Francisco. A huge warehouse split into two levels, with a maze of residential apartments squeezed into the bottom like a mini-city, topped by a beautiful open hardwood performance space; "seating" is provided by an array of beanbags, couches, and even beds. I should add that everything is immaculately clean as well lest anyone's hazy memories of college co-op shows taint their imagination.

The warehouse is home to cellist Zoe Keating, who has played with Tarentel, Laughing Stock, and John Vanderslice, and is currently a member of Rasputina, the No Name Trio, and Charles Atlas. The previous week's CA show at Cafe du Nord had introduced a visual element to their performance, with animated visual projections by artist Michelle Armstrong; local shut-ins Hope Sandoval and Colm O'Coisig had come out for the gig. Things were looking up; unfortunately, the set was hampered by the discovery that du Nord had ripped the walls out of what used to be the seperate showroom, so the bar noise, bathroom door slamming, and clatter from the new pool table was free to waft into the performance area. Despite having a guest drummer for the set, the dynamics of the band went lost on the bar crowd who had drifted in for a bachelor party. Another quiet venue lost for San Francisco's quietest band. The show at Natoma was scheduled in the hope of finding a suitable performance space for the band, who had decided that week for a variety of reasons to bring down the curtains on local shows after this summer.

Admission to performances at the Natoma warehouse are by sliding-scale donation and drinks were present in the form of a tub of home-made sangria and a smattering of wine bottles (also by donation). Those already in attendance had snagged the most optimum beanbags near the "stage", which was outlined by tea-lights. A transparent screen was hung to the left of the stage and another on the wall behind the performance space. After a short wait, a melange of short videos of roundabouts, Disneyland, and fireworks interpersed with still photographs of similarly dreamy subjects (all by CA's Greenberg) lit up the transparent screen, and SF artist Jett Drolette projected a series of other obscure still lifes against the backdrop behind the band. Opening with "Stone(d) in Brackish Pool," their standard 12 minute opener of chiming guitar and piano interplay, it was immediately apparent that not only had Charles Atlas found a home suitable for their sound, but that Zoe Keating was an invaluable asset. Removed from club surroundings, her cello contributions were less like embellishments and more integral elements of the songs, no small accomplishment as the music was mostly written without her or cello in mind.

Playing songs from their last album and a handful of new ones, CA won over a crowd that was made up largely of Park Avenue Music fans who had never heard of them. The church like aura of the space brought out passages of songs that were always buried in bad mixes at Bottom of the Hill. The highlight of the previous week's set, "Sun with Teeth," continued to improve with this performance, with more emphatic moog work and a drawn out second half featuring pulsating bass and reverbed trumpet over a crazy mix of noise courtesy of Zoe's looping effects. The persistent surreal visual projections and the free-flowing sangria compounded the dreamlike quality of the evening. Lulling much of the audience to near slumber for the majority of their first 40 minutes, CA pulled out "Port Noise, Complaint": their sharpest and most powerful composition, mostly solo piano, the song exploded into a pounding thunder of instruments, before the song broke into it's coda, the band's most pop moment which recalls the Smiths at their most tuneful. As a surprise finish, Matt and Zoe dueted on "Elysium", and the interplay of baby grand and cello made it clear that Charles Atlas were never a band suited for the San Francisco club circuit; similar to Town & Country, they are that rare group, a chamber music ensemble who use rock instrumentation.

As a finale (and because they were asked to), Charles and Matt played "Pondcup," a song written by Wyatt and released with Alan Sparhawk on a single to celebrate the births of their daughters in 2000. Never previously played live, it remains the CA song most likely to be recognized from it's occasional BBC airplay and appearance in most Low fans' 7" collection. It was a beautiful and emotional moment for the band, who played with the knowledge that this was the beginning of the end.

Charles Atlas are recording an album in San Francisco over the next 2 months and will continue a series of "Countdown to Extinction" shows in May, June and July before Charles Wyatt moves to Boston. Audraglint Records is releasing "Stone(d) in Brackish Pool" as a single in June, and will release "Fabricated" a CA remix album by Sybarite, Pram, ISAN, Casino Vs. Japan, Park Avenue Music, the Telescopes, and others, later this year. Their final San Francisco show as a local act will be played at 964 Natoma in August.

964 Natoma showcases improvisational and avant-garde music by the likes of Zoe Keating and violinist Tony Cross as well field recording performanced by artists such as the Quiet American almost weekly. Keep your ears to the ground because they have no website.