by Chris Nafekh
A small crowd sitting by the curb of Reanimator Records smoked idly; anyone approaching the store couldn’t have stumbled upon it, but must have tracked the odor of sweat and cigarettes.
In the small shop at the edge of downtown, surrounded by electric keys, guitars and piles of vinyl, the band Judy Barnes — hometown heroes of the music scene — immersed themselves in a throng of fans who crammed in the small store and overflowed onto the sidewalk. Jodi Burns, the lead singer, sang high-climbing ballads in rock-opera style with a voice that wavered like a singing saw. She studied classical voice at UNC School of the Arts and has been in Winston-Salem for years. But when Judy Barnes finished, most of the crowd left the shop, leaving just a handful of people for the headlining band.
Andy Gonzalez, the brains behind touring act Marshmallow Coast, grew up in Denver, Colo. where he became good friends with Julian Koster, bassist for Neutral Milk Hotel. Gonzalez meshed into the Elephant 6 Collective, a recording studio founded by underground musicians such as Neutral Milk’s songwriter Jeff Mangum.
In the early 2000s, Koster offered Gonzalez a part in his side project titled the Music Tapes — which played around the corner at Krankies Coffee about two years ago — and together they relocated to Athens, Ga. In his early days with the Music Tapes at a festival in Florida, Gonzalez met Kevin Barns, the sensual lead singer and creative genius behind the band Of Montreal. He later became a member of Barns’ psych-pop show.
Earlier this year, Gonzalez released a brief, 24-minute album Vangelis Rides Again on Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records. It’s an alluring album, too long for an EP but too short to be satisfying. Gonzalez hasn’t released a full album since his 2009 piece Phreak Phantasy.
The new cut is layered with dream-pop sounds. Romantic teenagers could slow-dance to this music on a dull weekend; the monotonous melodies and layered synth belong in an indie love story. Overall, the album is creative and amusing. The first song “Hash Out Cash Out” beckons a second play. Some tunes like “The Hills Are Alive” are artistically and lyrically clever; the song starts and ends by claiming “the hills are alive and I find that frightening.” Soft psychedelic sounds drift through others like “Mystical S***,” and “Foreign Denial” is just catchy. Gonzalez plays guitar riffs with a cool ’60s rock vibe that helps fill the gaps. His wife Sara Kirkpatrick and Emily Growden synthesize soft tech sounds on the keyboards while providing backup vocals.
Walking onto Reanimator’s small stage, Gonzalez donned a black-and-gold wizard robe. The band initially played for two or three spectators, while the rest remained outside. One man entered Reanimator, ordered a beer and watched the band as a sideshow. By the end of the set, Marshmallow Coast had drawn about 10 witnesses to its performance.
As the band finished, Gonzalez donned a Nintendo power glove and raised his beer as tribute to those in attendance, but the band seemed unfulfilled.
“I would tell jokes and be funny,” Gonzalez said, “but it’s so f***ing awkward.”
Marshmallow Coast hasn’t received the same attention as other Elephant 6 artists. That night, they didn’t even receive the same attention as their opening act.
The digital version of Vangelis is worth a listen. Listening to Marshmallow Coast live changes the experience of their music. On Aug. 1, their music was a shadow of Gonzalez’s creativity.
The tech sounds of keyboards, meant to be background layers, emerged as a wall of sound, drowning out vocals so much that Gonzalez’s muffled lyrics were unintelligible. The subtleties that make Vangelis unique were lost in the mix, maybe due to a lack of practice, maybe because Reanimator doesn’t have auditorium-quality acoustics. That Marshmallow Coast wasn’t afforded the opportunity to do a soundcheck might have also hurt them.
“When we don’t do the preparation,” Gonzalez said, “it’s kind of hit or miss.” He described the show as only “okay,” and he was stressed and slightly disappointed. Outside after the show, Gonzalez shuffled boxes of CDs, cassettes and vinyl underneath a small merch table.
An audience that doesn’t listen isn’t an audience at all, and the folks at Reanimator on Aug. 1 were almost solely devoted to Judy Barnes’ overly climactic show while Marshmallow Coast — a band with a rich history and eclectic, original sound — remained invisible. The perk of a tight-knit music scene is the ability of talented artists like those in Judy Barnes to consistently draw a devoted audience, but sometimes that doesn’t carry over to a headlining visitor, which was sort of the whole point.