The Hotel Cafe (not a hotel or a cafe!) was my destination on Saturday, November 21, 2015 to see musician Gabriel Kahane. This was my third time seeing Gabriel, the first being a performance last year at the same venue and the second time when he opened for Punch Brothers this past April. I bought his album The Ambassador at that concert having been thoroughly impressed by his cerebral and masterful songwriting.
Gabriel is a versatile composer and his catalog of music includes beautiful ballads, eclectic kitsch pieces, emotional explorations, and diverse ruminations on themes. His lyrics are thoughtful and several of his songs could stand alone as poems based on the strength and rhythm of his words. Rather then trying to define this complex and diverse music in mere words, I suggest you listen to his music and draw your own conclusions!
He began his performance at The Hotel Cafe on guitar, playing the pretty “Winter Song” from his album Where are the Arms. Next, he switched over to the piano (and spent most of the evening there) for “North Adams” from his self-titled album.
Then he played apocalypse song “Griffith Park (2800 E. Observatory Ave.)” from The Ambassador. He taught the audience the background “la di dah” section and advised us to sing it with the “subtext of abject terror.” It took a few times for the audience to figure out the rhythm properly, but the nice thing about L.A. is that it seems like everyone can sing well (and by well, I mean at least in tune). He stuck with The Ambassador, his concept album based on locations real and fictional around Los Angeles, for three more songs: “Bradbury (304 Broadway)” dedicated to Rutger Hauer; one of my favorites, “Villains (4616 Dundee Rd.) ,” which he preceded by mentioning that this song could be a summary of the Thom Andersen documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (I’ve borrowed a line from this song for the title of this blog); and “Veda (1 Pierce Rd.),” inspired by the film Mildred Pierce — after finishing this one Gabriel noted, “I was Joan Crawford in that song.”
When you’ve written a song about the city you are performing in, of course you must play it, so we were treated to the first of three songs in a row from Where Are the Arms,”LA.” Gabriel introduced the next song as being about depressing mental illness, “Charming Disease.” “Merritt Pkwy” immediately followed, just as it does on the album. I was particularly struck by the line “Please let me forget you.”
Then Gabriel played a couple new songs. He didn’t give a title for the first song, which had been written fairly recently. It included a couple interesting lyrics I noted down, assuming I heard them correctly, the first being “laughing at the lost and found,” which probably caught my attention because of Elliott Smith’s song where he was “hanging around in the lost and found.” The other interesting line was, “She begins to cry at last and I became an hourglass.” The second of the new songs was one that he had titled “The Man Who Played with Model Trains,” which sounds like a chapter from a book by Oliver Sacks. Obviously these new songs have not yet hit YouTube, so no links there.
He delved back into Where Are the Arms for “Last Dance,” followed by the album’s title track. We were then treated to a couple of the eclectic pieces from Craigslistlieder, a set of songs with words taken from Craigslist ads: “You Looked Sexy” about a missed connection and “If Anyone Knows…” about sandwich relish. Yes you read that right, sandwich relish. Dan Wilson did once write, “A song can be about anything!” Gabriel Kahane believes it. I couldn’t find YouTube videos of Gabriel playing these two pieces, but interestingly, they have been performed by music students, so check out those interpretations.
He closed with the absolutely exquisite song “Ambassador Hotel (3400 Wilshire Blvd.)” from The Ambassador. It is worth picking up the album for this song alone; particularly if you like wistful, nostalgic, pondering songs as I do. The playlist I put together showcasing various performances of most of the songs from his set can be found at Gabriel Kahane Nov 21 2015.