A camera obscura is an optical device in which light shining through a small hole into a darkened space displays an inverted image of the scene outside as best seen in the work of Abelard Morell. Camera Obscura is also the name of one of my favorite new bands who hail from Glasgow, Scotland. Their music is characterized by ethereal female vocals reminiscent of The Sundays and the cranberries mixed with a sound similar to the late 50’s/early 60’s doo-wop and Phil Spector Wall of Sound era. The comparisons are only minimally valid, however, as Camera Obscura’s sound is unique and refreshing. They played in Boston this past weekend and Susan & I were there to hear them.
The Essex Green from Brooklyn opened the show. They are a band with three men and two women, all of whom are instrumentalists (I love our equitable times). They play high-energy pop (or neo-psychedelic pop as the website describes it) and are reminiscent of, well … Camera Obscura. Keyboardist Sasha Bell and guitarist Chris Ziter trade off on vocals. Drummer Tim Barnes looks like a stereotypical stoner and plays the skins like Animal from The Muppet Show. From our seats at stage left we had a good view of the slender female bassist who apparently is not an official member of the band since there is no mention of her at the website. They played a surprisingly long set for an opening act, 45 minutes. They sound pretty good and I think it will be worthwhile to check out their new album The Cannibal Sea.
After a break, Camera Obscura came out to play led by two women in fine 50’s-style frocks, lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Tracyanne Campbell in rust orange and keyboardist/vocalist Carey Lande in a lovely lime green dress (I wonder if they were secretly showing their support for Rangers and Celtic respectively). The men who were not as well dressed include Kenny McKeeve on guitar, Lee Thomson on drums, and most impressively Nigel Baillie, a jack-of-all-trades who played a variety of percussion (including one song where he enthusiastically bashed one of Thomson’s cymbals) and the trumpet that adds the texture of many of their best songs. As for the opener we had the best view of the bassist Gavin Dunbar who looked much older than his band mates.
Highlights of the show include a clap-along to “I Need All the Friends I Can Get” in which the Boston audience showed their rythmic endurance. Leaky HVAC tubing caused a stream of water to fall on the bassist’s spot, first Essex Green’s female bassist and then on the head of Gavin. He was forced to play precariously perched on the edge of the stage until a staffer came to wipe up the puddle. Not a good show for the Paradise and that’s the type of thing that will keep bands from returning. When a front row spectator shouted out requests for specific songs, Tracyanne retorted that they were being “bossy.” It was later revealed that the bossy people were from New York. The audience were informed that the band plays requests in exchange for whisky and although it was a joke one fan took them up on the offer.
A nice thing about seeing a new band play is that they’re likely to play all you favorite songs whether you shout ’em out or not. Camera Obscura did not disappoint playing my favorites “Come Back Margaret,” “Country Mile,” “If Looks Could Kill,” “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken,” and “Teenager.” They finished their encore with “Razzle Dazzle Rose” which is the perfect mix of melody and energy to complete the show. After the surprisingly long opening act, Camera Obscura’s main set was surprisingly short, just over an hour including the encore. On the other hand we were tired old fogeys and it was good to still be able to catch the T home, so we didn’t complain.