In 1967, the Bay Area's Brotherhood of Light transformed the average rock show into a full-blown psychedelic spectacle. Using 16mm film and Technicolor dyes and oils, the collective began projecting swirling visuals on larger-than-life backdrops at venues like the Fillmore. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and, of course, the Dead all got the Brotherhood treatment. The projectionists definitely livened up those 20-minute drum solos — Iron Butterfly, I'm looking at you — but ultimately, their improvisations couldn't continuously jell with the music.
"Traditionally it's been, put up the trippy image, and sometimes it'll hit and look cool, but not always," says Small Sails multi-instrumentalist Ethan Rose. "Not that there aren't more people doing syncing today, [but] that became kind of our whole MO — let's do something more with this and make it part of the performance."
Sonically speaking, Small Sails is a trio. Three Portland, Ore., musicians trade off on keyboards, guitar, vibraphones, and drums to concoct an electro-organic, mostly instrumental panorama reminiscent of a less melancholy Album Leaf. But in keeping with their visual focus, the band formerly called Adelaide is actually composed of four members. Ryan Jeffery, who's collaborated with Rose since their days at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, handles the projectionist duties.
The use of 16mm projectors isn't unique by today's standards: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Rachel's, and Broadcast have used them. But Small Sails — which played its first Bay Area show in March and has since opened for Fog and the Helio Sequence — is one of the few acts to tout its projectionist as a full-fledged member.
It's easy to understand why. Jeffery, who cites New York artist Bruce McClure as an inspiration, doesn't simply press a few buttons and drink Amstels during the show. He literally plays two dueling Kodak Analyst IIs, projectors Rose discovered by chance at an old camera shop in San Diego five years ago. (Incidentally, the model was a favorite among football coaches in the late 1970s because its variable-speed control allows footage to be viewed at a mesmerizing eight frames per second; real time is three times that rate.)
Looping 10 minutes of footage into a 45-minute set, Jeffery will tinker with speed, pull things in and out of focus, and use his hands to create subtle strobing effects timed perfectly to a shift in the melody. Though there are no LSD-inspired Rorschach swirls, the way he mashes up a rural landscape from one projector with a random figure's silhouette via the other highlights the abstract vibe of a project that's trippy in its own right but never long-winded.
While Adelaide stretched its post-rock meanders to seven minutes, Small Sails injects a lighter pop sensibility that keeps the music trim and utterly buoyant. After a few radio blips and digital hiccups, "Aftershocks and Afterthoughts," an unreleased song that may appear on their debut, flows forth in a wave of catchy guitar noodles, crisp beats, and spacey ambient noise that layers and peaks in under a minute. Then as a punchy synth hook enters the mix (think: Duran Duran's "The Chauffer" sped up and almost danceable), a bright "hi-oh, hi-oh" vocal refrain comes charging in. The words are sparse and nonsensical, but somehow such ambiguity is what helps make Small Sails so compelling, both on record and in person.
"The aim is to gently guide a narrative idea, but at the same time it's not telling some specific personal narrative. It's sort of everybody's narrative," Rose says. "With the imagery and the colors and the sounds, it creates this space that opens up emotionally to a whole bunch of different places for different people. It's a platform for an open experience."
The Brotherhood would be proud. SFBG
With Lazarus and Only
Thurs/13, 9 p.m.
500 Fourth St., SF