Arbouretum

Back to the bearded people that give me a nice sense of home. Don’t know if it is because of Santa Klaus childhood memories or because I have a beard myself. Let’s believe the second, it’s August after all even if the British summer looks so much like Christmas that pubs have started taking booking for Christmas lunch!

The fact that I was close to miss Arbouretum, which play the genre of music I love in the small venues live music I best appreciate, it is another sign of how much good stuff is coming from the USA alt.folk (or avant.folk, or alt.country or whatever!!!) scene.

Luckily Andrea, an Italian friend, pointed them to me not much ago. Since I listened to them it was love at first sight.
Soon after it comes the beauty of living close to London which, for a music lover, is like for a child living in a candy’s shop.

From the moment I discover a band, spotify (?!) it and google it is likely that within 2 or 3 weeks they’ll be playing somewhere I can reach.

It happened in the past and happened again with Arbouretum. 26th of July, I caught my train to Kings Cross, walked up Pentonville Rd and entered The (lovely) Lexington for their headline show.

It was an “Uncut Club” night, so I had the plus of having a three bands line-up and a free copy of the magazine (brand new August 09 issue including a bonus Blues CD) to read during the breaks and on my train back. There is a beautiful Roky Erickson interview among other things.

Also a way to avoid twittering. Don’t you find being at a gig alone and twittering from there to share emotions with virtual people elsewhere (who can’t share anything since they aren’t with you) is pretty sad?
It looks the coolest thing at present, but seen in perspective? A couple of years back it was very cool commenting on Myspace, wasn’t it? Social networking is an unstable ever-evolving loneliness-filling movement. What’ll be next?

My self-centred attitude makes me think that, since I didn’t know Arbouretum, most of you may not as well. The experienced fans can now skip the text for a bit and look at the photos, the novices follow me through this quick “Arbouretum for Beginners” guide, it won’t take long and allow me to fill in more photos (for the experienced).

Who are they?
Arbouretum is a band formed by four (bearded) guys from Baltimore, USA.

The founding member and the heart of the band is David Heumann. On voice and guitar on stage, on many more instruments on records. Not counting collaborations with Mr William Oldham alias Bonnie “Prince” Billy and many others.
He is the only member on all the recorded stuff. Line-ups have changed a lot since the band formed in 2002.

The quartet on stage tonight, the same in the latest album, completes with other singer-guitarist Steve Strohmeier, Corey Allender on bass and drummer Daniel Franz, seen also collaborating with Bella Union’s Beach House.

So far a classic line-up, with the icing on the cake of having a band lacking a keyboard in the late noughties synth revival.

What’s the discography?
Quite long, actually. Arbouretum published three albums before I discovered them.

The first, 2004 Long Live The Well-Doer, CD is out of stock. Not their best, still a bit unripe, but worth a free listen to get in touch if you can access Spotify where it is streamed in its entirity.

The big leap forward happened when Thrill Jockey signed them.
Rites of Uncovering saw the light in 2007 and uncovers the band potential.
Guitars are prominent, voices are melancholic and songs are beautiful.
Line up changes from song to song but consistency doesn’t. You can listen to the album on streaming on Thrill Jockey website. Try the wonderful Pale Rider Blues if you want one to start.

2009 sees the arrive of Song of the Pearl. The title can be easily inverted into pearl of songs, since what they did is to add eight new pearls to the songbook. Difficult to tell where to start here, stream it all and arrive to the essence of a sweet voice over a simply distorted guitar of Tomorrow is a long time, the closing track.

Worth mentioning an LP-only issue called Kale. Split between Arbouretum and Pontiak (both Thrill Jockey bands) has new songs and John Cale covers from both bands. Arbouretum rendition of John Cale’s Buffalo Ballet is here.

What do they sound like?
The name of Bonnie “Prince” Billy is important but considering his eclecticism it is also the worst to give an idea of their music.
Their reccent supporting slot at Band Of Horses American tour could be of help. There are clearly some points in common with Seattle SubPop colleagues, in a positive way.

They both wrote beautiful songs, vocals are melodic and electric guitars between arpeggios and slides are beautifully played.
Then the music erupts in sonic journeys that makes them special.

In fact, what drew me to their gig was reading on Thrill Jockey website this statement: “Arbouretum plans to tour heavily in support of this release, but warns that live versions of the songs may bear only a passing resemblance to the recordings. They exist so as to be forever interpreted anew…ideally, at least.” Indeed.

How was the concert then?
The statement is very true. Live Arbouretum songs levitate, mount into something grander, special.

The sweetness of the singing goes enchanting the crowd until it is abruptly interrupted by crying guitars, collective improvisations, change of tempos to amaze anyone present.
They remind anything between the rustier Crazy Horses or Akron/Family adventurous post-rock digressions.

Stoner rock would be another reference if the desert had moved to Maryland or if they decide to head south-west and recording next album in the middle of Joshua Tree park.

The gig goes on for just over an hour. The setlist is in their mind, written nowhere.
I am not very good on remembering song titles even when they are faithful to recordings, so I can’t tell you which was played and which not.
What I can tell is that the set was mostly centred on the latest album, Songs of Pearl. It is the first where a consistent line-up plays all the songs.

When, towards the end, David Heumann “A” string broke under the vigour of one of his solos he got a bit frustrated.
It’s not nice when the gig is at its apex. He looked at the mixer and asked “how long do we have yet?” when someone from the crowd replied “put on the string mate, you’ve got two hours!”.

Thankfully he decided to give its guitar another try. This created a nice laid back interlude. If Steve Strohmeier failed to amuse the audience telling american jokes he delighted everyone playing a pretty nice solo song about cocaine.
Meanwhile the string was changed and Arbouretum thrilled with 15 more minutes of music delight.
This delay made me miss the last fast train so I had plenty of time to congratulate the band while they were doing the merchandise set, selling CDs.

I found 12£ for the albums and 15£ for the T-shirt a bit too expensive considering the albums are about 8£ on Amazon (even less in USA) but we all know, bands are getting most of their income from touring and a signed CD bought from the hands of your star is a different thing to a fan.

Faithful to the statement Arbouretum songs exist to be reinterpreted, which is what I’d always like to see live.
Their music renders better live and for the one not as lucky as me to gravitate around London I would suggest Thrill Jockey to think about a live recording.

I know, quite a mad move in a period where live music booms and recorded downfalls. Live album are almost disappearing but one of the few examples, My Morning Jacket‘s Okonokos, still is an absolute amazing record and ranks high as one of the best album of this closing decade.

While waiting for my dream to happen, this is as far as you can go to get in touch with them online. I told you about [Thrill Jockey] for streaming of the albums, then [myspace] for more listening and tour info, for seeing a couple of great videos.

Photo Tip

The beautiful thing about seeing a show in a small venue, is not only for the quality of the music but, if you are photographing, is for the quality of the pictures.

Before the gig I am told I can shoot as long as I wish if I don’t use flash.
It happens often in these places and the opportunity is a wonderful occasion to experiment with your style and your gear.
Without the pressure of delivering a set of photos in 10 minutes, there is load of time to try something different.

Understanding the stage presence of the band is useful to decide which direction to go with your pics.
Arbouretum are a pretty static band, so I concentrated on focusing my cameras very selectively at some details.

I will now concentrate my tip on selective focusing, wide apertures and, in the end, use of the Depth of Field (DOF).

Jumping the theory of photography that tells how depth of field works, wikipedia is much more exhaustive than I could possibly be, what follows is what I find useful and you may find useful to know to get the best out of your photos.

Fast lenses.
f/2.8 or less is ideal because DOF is related to aperture and shorten at wider apertures.
A normal to a short telephoto prime is ideal (prime lenses are faster than zooms).
On the DSLR “cropped” world, a 50mm f1.something is perfect. It gives the right aperture, the right focal length, high quality all at a reasonable price. It’s called universal lens for a reason, anyone shooting gigs should have one in the bag.

Longer telephotos (>100mm) have very short DOF but the problems with vibration and shaking can become big with low lights. To achieve the maximum effect you need perfect, sharp pictures in a very small area of the frame.

Wide angles have longer DOF so unless you have an f/1.4 or f/2.0 on a 35mm or so, the area of focus could be too long and not as effective.

I went for the 85mm using apertures around f/1.4-f/2.0 and tried to shoot at least at 1/125s.
Shaking is much more evident in close-ups.

I focus manually. This is what I prefer doing normally but I think it is even more important when selective focus. The subject and the AF could mismatch the right part of the picture you want in focus, especially if it is not central.

Choosing a subject that doesn’t move too much is unavoidable, catching a jumping singer at F2.0 it’s almost impossible, but also wait for the moment the motion is to a minimum.

Important! Don’t forget the blurred background, it sounds weird but the best results are achieved when the bokeh is harmonic.
It’s not the sharpness of the focus to make the image, but the balance of sharpness and blur, so in the viewfinder, have a look at what’s on the back of your frame.

Composition follows rules that need to be known before attempiting to distort.
There is not one single example in the history of any revolutionary artistic movement that wasn’t aware of the past. You need to handle it to change it.

Expect a big amount of useless shots and don’t get too frustrated.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.

~ by Valerio on August 2, 2009.

8 Responses to “Arbouretum”

  1. Back on liveon35mm after a while!
    I discovered Arbouretum while searching for sounds tha could blend the american folk and rough sounds, starting from Bonnie Prince Billy for a journey to go back to Crazy Horse (and infact those are cited as to focus Arbouretum sound).
    What I did not expect is that I was going to find echoes of Fairport Convention, guitar soloes to make Josh Homme envious, and a bit of that grunge melancholy all over their songs, which I have loved so much in PearlJam & ScreamingTrees.
    Well, what comes out of the speakers gives you shakes, I tell you!
    Too bad I could not see them live yet, anyway a lot of good soundboard recordings are available on the web, check’em out for good.
    CaptainLovestar’s favourite songs:
    Pale rider blues (here’s the real Jackpot, it’s a monster like no others)
    Thin domination
    Another hiding place (this is absolute Fairport Convention!!)
    Mohammed’s hex and bounty
    Tonight’s a jewel (this could be SteeleyeSpan!!)

    Cheerz
    Lorenzo

  2. These photos are stunning and I love what you wrote as well.

    thanks! if we can use any of your photos at the label please let us know by emailing our press officer at

    press@thrilljockey.com THANKS!~

  3. Ottimo come sempre; anch’io ho scoperto gli Arbouretum qualche mese fa e li ho adorati da subito. Purtroppo non sono riuscito a vederli dal vivo (sono passati per l’Italia a fine luglio) ma mi consolo con questo articolo e le – ottime – foto.

  4. I subscribe to the Captain’s point of view.
    In brief: nothing innovative but a bunch of really solid songs. And they rock.
    About the photos, classic “Valerio’s touch”. And i like it.
    Andrea

  5. Thanks everyone,
    so the stoners are back (and they are responsible for this post so thank them too). That’s spot on Captain, Pearl Jam melancholy, that the other bit I couldn’t remember that clearly emerges in some songs.

    Thanks Bettina,
    just sent to you an e-mail.

  6. Great post, have all your links queued up and ready to listen.

    Brent

  7. I was at this gig. It was absolutely brilliant. Arbouretum have some of the best guitar interplay I’ve ever heard. I liked Strohmeier’s ‘cocaine blues’ while Heuman changed his string. Really want to see them again. Thanks for the photo’s they look excellent

  8. Great Buddy,
    so that was Cocaine Blues… thanks for the addition.

    (and thanks to Brent too)

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