She & Him with the Chapin Sisters
Shepherd’s Bush Empire
10 May 2010
Sometimes the mood of a gig can be judged by the taste of the sound tech’s choice of intro music. So the choice of musical selections by Arthur Lee’s influential but often forgotten group Love for the pre-gig entertainment at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire was a clear indication that She & Him, otherwise known as Zooey Deschanel and M. (Matt) Ward, have impeccable taste in music.
While there is a certain vogue for actors attempting to cross over into the world of music - I’ve written about this before – Zooey Deschanel, known for her work in films including Elf, Almost Famous and (500) Days of Summer, is regarded as one of the most multi-talented. Her voice has the advantage of clarity and purity, while retaining a charming hint of untutored naivety, which acts as a refreshing counterpoint to the sea of autotuned robot pop-tarts and soulless show-off foghorns that currently dominate the pop charts.
Deschanel’s voice is decorated by her musical partnership with talented singer-songwriter M. Ward, which has seen the pair’s shared love of the Beatles and Phil Spector Wall of Sound-era pop, with a sideline in fine country ballads, create a stylish amalgam of tunes and lyrics that evoke the strongest years of the pop groups who lived and played in thrall to vocal harmonies and rhythm guitars.
The ‘She’ in She & Him is quite as beautiful as you might have heard, which certainly does their chances of success no harm. In a baby-blue sleeveless dress with white shoes, like Lily Allen minus the urchin overtones, Deschanel chirps at the microphone, rattling her tambourine or pecking at the organ. Her vocals range effortlessly from perky girl-group pop to pin-drop sultry torch song elegance to plaintive country simplicity to rousing Beatlesque chorusing. Delightfully, when she’s particularly caught up in the set’s rockier performances she expresses her excitement by bounding on the spot like a rapt three-year-old at a birthday party.
The ‘Him’ lurks at the fringes of the stage, marshalling the music from stage left, issuing plangent surf chords and slide guitar ruminations, with the odd interjection of smooth backing vocals. The quietly-spoken Ward brings a commanding knowledge of rock and pop history to Deschanel’s songs, and is happy for her to dominate the spotlight.
Highlights from the 90-minute set: the pair ditched their band for The Miracles’ You Really Got A Hold On Me, and captured the audience with just bare voices and acoustic guitar. The lead single from Volume One, Why Do You Let Me Stay Here, was as insanely catchy as on record, with the peerless Ward guitar break perfectly executed to seal an exuberant pop moment. This led straight into This Is Not A Test, with its euphoric chorus outro a declaration of optimism and let-it-go release. In the first encore Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven was Ward’s rock ‘n roll party piece to shake the room. And to close, Deschanel’s spine-tingling performance of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put A Spell On You displayed room-filling vocal prowess (see below). It’s left ‘til last because like Twist & Shout on the Beatles’ Please Please Me, once you’ve given a performance like that there’s no return.
While the first She & Him album was something of a cult affair, the recently issued Volume Two has crossed over into mainstream success, reaching number 6 on the US pop charts. This poses an interesting question for Zooey Deschanel – does she still want two careers? Because if last night’s performance was anything to go by, the star power of She & Him easily matches her considerable acting talents.
Earlier, support act the Chapin Sisters, the nieces of folk singer Harry Chapin (of Cat’s In The Cradle fame), impressed with their close vocal harmonies and the quality of their melodic country-folk performance. Reduced from their initial quota of three voices to a mere two by the pregnancy of one sister, the remaining Chapins gave a strong showing, appearing in long white dresses reminiscent of a Greek chorus. They also provided skilful backing vocals and supporting instrumentation for She & Him’s set, bringing out the rich harmonies that are layered through so many of their recordings. There’s a nice clip of them performing last summer below, in which they cope admirably with a slightly unruly son on stage.
One theme of the evening was the running battle waged between the Empire’s ushers and the attending crowd, who had been asked not to take photos or videos of the bands. Many disregarded the request and the auditorium was constantly illuminated by the ghostly glare of LCD screens as they snapped away. I can understand the urge to secure a souvenir picture of an event, but the desire to spend a significant portion of a gig viewing the action through a tiny screen seems a foolish one, not to mention the irritation it causes to people like me who find the screen glow a distracting nuisance. But the main objection I have to serial amateur photographers is that it’s simply bad manners – artists don’t want every live performance to be scrutinised for a pratfall or wardrobe malfunction.
That said, I am somewhat torn on this point because I’ve linked to a fan video below from a London gig a few days earlier, with Deschanel decked out as a 21st century Karen Carpenter. Perhaps in the future it will become standard for bands to release entire gigs in video format, either free or at a small cost, but until then I suppose we have to put up with a bit of surreptitious recording. But can’t you work out a way to do it without turning your screen on, people?
She & Him & Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Why Do You Let Me Stay Here? (500 Days of Summer alternate video)
She & Him – Thieves (Live on Jimmy Kimmel Live)
She & Him – I Put A Spell On You (Live at Koko, 7 May 2010)
The Chapin Sisters – Remember When The Music (Live in Nova Scotia, August 2009)