Elvis Perkins has come a long way from his ostensibly country and rock ‘n’ roll roots. Named after Elvis Presley and sharing a surname with country legend Carl Perkins, the young singer-songwriter used to take music lessons with the bassist from The Knack. Now, taking the stage at The Crofters’ Rights beneath a giant mirrorball and flanked by turban-clad multi-instrumentalists playing pump-organ and Hammond keyboard, Elvis Perkins seems more like a surrealist hipster vision of Woodstock ’69.
Musically, his new album I Aubade sounds far closer to the hippie-revivalism of Devendra Banhart or Father John Misty than the more straightforward country-folk stylings of his debut, Ash Wednesday. His songwriting has taken on a touch of the whimsical surrealism and mysticism of Banhart or Misty and his band often break into extended solos and ambient instrumentalism, toying with eastern drone sounds and classical guitar. Yet he still possesses the powerful and silky country voice of his namesake, which characterizes and carries his sound throughout the experimentalism of his new material.
PERKINS DOESN’T TAKE THE MYSTIC, FLOWER-CHILD STYLINGS TOO SERIOUSLY
Even for a Monday night in the back room of a Bristol bar, the crowd is sparse. There’s a strange atmosphere of a considerable imbalance between the talent onstage and the scattered handful of dedicated fans who have turned out on a rainy weeknight to see Perkins tour his new album. In the face of adversity, Perkins showed the breadth of his considerable talent to warm up a formidably serious and somber crowd. Throughout the first few songs the room was almost painfully quiet and static, Perkins’s stage chat falling flat with such an attentive and sober audience. Yet, by the end of his set, the singer was reeling off guitar solos from the midst of the dancefloor while his drummer paraded the stage with a marching-band bass drum and the crowd roared and clapped in appreciation.
Perhaps the hazardously strong craft ales on tap at the bar helped fuel the transformation but the success of the performance was more a testament to Perkins’s remarkable range. As well as the more melancholy and introspective lyrical material of his early albums, which largely dealt with the aftermath of his mother’s death in the 9/11 attacks, Perkins’s new songs introduce a caustic wit and comic sensibility. There’s also a sense that Perkins doesn’t take the mystic, flower-child stylings too seriously. While the ornately staged retro look of the band initially comes across solemn and sincere, the singer’s wry sense of humour and self-deprecation emerged as the evening wore on. The recent single ‘Hogus Pocus,’ for instance, playfully considers the spiritual connotations of a pig-heart transplant, to considerable comic effect. From an initially unresponsive audience, Perkins had the room cracking up at every line. The sheer range of I Aubade, which intersperses soul-searching introspective songs and earnest anthems for world-peace with these eccentric comic turns and rousing tracks like ‘I Came for Fire,’ is staggering. Perkins’s live show, which effortlessly mixed recent material with old favourites, was a virtuoso display of diverse songwriting talent.