I was immediately intrigued by the funky, soulful racket the band was kicking up, struck that there were seven members--and amused that among this septet, there were two back-up singers. I mean, that's a rock star gambit, a Sting move. But here's a new band that even most music aficionados haven't heard of, that can't be making any dough to speak of on the road -- still, they have not one, but two back-up singers. Hilarious. And interesting.
It was a raucous house party, yet it didn't take long to see that the host--in this case, lead singer Elijah Jones, was deftly controlling the chaos, the frontman equivalent of the guy who throws a giant bash, and while keeping the drinks and stories coming is also subtly surveying the scene to keep the tipsy gal across the living room from knocking over the antique lamp, or the pair of blotto, increasingly grumpy guys from throwing any punches 'til they step outside.
Indeed, Jones has charisma to burn, and while he projects an image of the whirling-dervish party animal, he also knows exactly what he's doing (if he's crazy, he's crazy like a fox), and more to the point loves what he's doing. Also, his manner suggests catholic tastes in music, and vast knowledge -- he probably has a better, broader music library than you or I do, combined.
But The Constellations is far from a one-man band, and as I became swept up in the magic carpet ride of their SunFest performance, it was because all the musicians on stage locked into a blissed-out whole, forming a huge beckoning finger, luring the listener into the fold.
Literally, in my case. As they galloped deeper into their set, I gradually moved from the back of the grassy area closer and closer to the stage--that's how mesmerized I was, and if they'd played any longer, I might well have climbed on stage with them.
Which would've been awkward. It doesn't appear they're looking to expand their ranks, but I thought afterwards they did remind me a bit of Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros, an even larger collective, though much as Sharpe & company seem to be a buzz band of the moment -- I'd say tapped into the zeitgeist, but I'd have no idea what that means -- I find The Constellations more soulful. And more fun.
As soon as I got home that night, I searched online for The Constellations music, learning a debut album, "Southern Gothic," was on the horizon--but downloaded the song that was available, "Felicia," a wonderfully funky number propelled in part by Jamie Gordon's spirited electric piano. I've since played "Felicia" a bunch of times on the Wednesday Sonic Detour on WMNF, and enthusiastically sung the band's praises on-air each time.
And "Southern Gothic" more than lives up to the expectations created by the live adventure: it offers much of that vigorous chaos and genre-traversing--this thing travels from Tom Waits (in the homage-more-than-cover "Step Right Up") to a guest turn by Cee-Lo, who's featured on "Love Is A Murder"--but is delivered with a firm, unifying hand by producer Ben H. Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley).
Then, over Labor Day Weekend, my crush on the Constellations only deepened when I saw them at Bumbershoot, the Seattle music and arts festival celebrating it's 40th anniversary (I started going 19 years ago). Semi-interesting coincidence: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros were also there, performing about five hours after The Constellations.
This set was longer, bigger, more colorful--better. From launching the show with the hypnotic "Setback" (I suspect I won't be the first, nor last, to note that this song is a kindred spirit, sonically, with "Tomorrow Never Knows") The Constellations were a blast, whether churning out the extended Waitsian extravaganza, "Step Right Up," rendering a cover of "Let's Dance" brimming with as much percolating fun as any version I've seen Bowie himself perform (and highlighting that another not-so-secret Constellations weapon is Wes Hoffman, whose bass lines are as big as his 'fro, which is saying something) and nearing the finish line with a smokin' "Felicia." And even when their time was up, they squeezed in a quick cover of "I'm Waiting For My Man."
Jones was, once again, screwy-captivating, including between-song patter that ranged from first impressions of Seattle to noting that -- when he peeled off his jacket, revealing a hideous, mostly-yellow floral shirt --"I dress like a pedophile," and generally keeping things moving, as he kept moving.
And he moves with something of a swagger, mild enough so it's not off-putting, but pronounced enough so it underscores everything else: Elijah Jones was born to front a band--not just any band, mind you, but a band with as much horsepower, and as many gears (and as many members!) as The Constellations.
The Constellations will be making a significant Florida run with the following Sunshine State shows:
October 3, 2010 - Vinyl Music Hall, Pensecola, FL
October 4, 2010 - Jack Rabbits, Jacksonville, FL
October 5, 2010 - Culture Room, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
October 6, 2010 - State Theater, St. Petersburg, FL
October 7, 2010 - The Social, Orlando, FL
“Felicia” by The Constellations (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)