After the first song at the Zavalaz concert on Wednesday night at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, only the band’s third-ever concert, frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala said, “Thank you for coming out. I know you don’t know what the f*** we sound like. … Thank you for taking a leap of faith.”
It’s true, we didn’t know what Zavalaz (that’s his mother’s maiden name with an extra “z” at the end) would sound like. But given his track record as the singer for the acclaimed post-hardcore band At the Drive-In and the Grammy Award-winning prog metal band The Mars Volta, which recently broke up, taking this particular leap of faith was a no-brainer.
Bixler-Zavala has described Zavalaz’s music as “‘70s, AM radio-inspired love ballads,” but it turns out that this is as accurate as it is misleading. Sure, some of those elements were there — namely, harmonized vocals and rich arrangements — but the cheesiness that this description suggests was thankfully absent. No “Baby, I Love Your Way” or “Afternoon Delight” at this show!
The connection with Bixler-Zavala’s previous bands is primarily through his powerful, versatile vocals, and while the music at times had a touch of prog rock or a build-up of intensity, it was often mellow, pretty and even a bit folky. Plus, to my ears, it was more accessible to the masses.
Bixler-Zavala, who also showed that he is a fine rhythm guitarist as he alternated between electric and a little black Martin acoustic guitar, was joined by an amazing band with an impressive pedigree: Dan Elkan (from Them Hills and Broken Bells) on guitar, harmony vocals and between-song soundscapes; Greg Rogove (from Megapuss) on drums; Nate Walcott (from Bright Eyes) on keyboards; and Juan Alderete de la Pena (a former bandmate from The Mars Volta) on bass guitar. The band’s tightness at such an early phase in its history was nothing short of phenomenal.
Bixler-Zavala also did a bit of pop culture brain dump in his amusing comments to to the audience, making joking references to Steve Harvey, Teen Mom, hacky sacks, Danzig, and the episode of What’s Happening!! in which Rerun bootlegs the Doobie Brothers.
The evening’s opening band was Dot Hacker, a side project for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ current guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. Klinghoffer didn’t rock out much on guitar, instead bringing lots of cool textures on guitar and keyboards to original songs that are more Indie moody than freaky styley, plus a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Memories Fade.”
The word is that Zavalaz has an album in the works, probably to be released in early 2014. And while it won’t burn up AM radio, I expect that it will find its way onto the iPods of a lot of people who like Bixler-Zavala’s previous bands, and a lot of people who are discovering his music for the first time.
Setlist for Dot Hacker
Memories Fade (Tears for Fears cover)
Floating Up the Stairs
Setlist for Zavalaz
Wither on the Vine
All the Nights We Never Met
Blue Rose of Grand Street
Don’t Lose Sight
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.