For a smallish setup with little fuss, few musicians, and a minimalist sound, there was a lot to take in last night at Advance Base's Cafe Du Nord appearance; a night otherwise known as Owen Ashworth's (Casiotone for the Painfully Alone) first time playing SF in this new incarnation as Advance Base, since he essentially broke up with himself. And no, he would not be playing CFTPA songs.
Vintage instruments were packed neatly on the stage: Ashworth's boxy 1970s-era Rhodes 54 electric piano, an Omnichord, an autoharp, a sampler, various pedals and twisty lit-up knobs and buttons. And then there was Ashworth himself, his bespectacled face and tall slumping shoulders, a decade's worth of songwriting weighing down on them as he hunched over the Rhodes. His set began with that anticipation, his years of performances as another act behind him, a question of where it would begin.
At first, he sat alone, as he did as Casiotone (though didn't he normally stand back then? No matter), and opened with springy, sample-driven, “Summer Music,” which actually is more of a breakup song, with a knife-twisting nostalgic pull in the repeated lyrics “The sound of music from the kitchen boombox” – like nothing changes yet everything ends with that old stereo continually pumping out sounds in another room, just out of sight. You're gone and I'm still here.
“Summer Music” is also the first track off Advance Base's newly released debut LP A Shut-Ins Prayer. It felt like there was a sigh of relief from the crowd after that intro – phew – our own tense shoulders lowered. He hasn't changed, too much (we collectively thought this, right?)
On the next song, “New Gospel” – and through much of the set – he invited his fellow Chicagoan Jody Weinmann and touring opener Nick Krgovich up on stage to join him in song, on backup vocals and autoharp/keyboard respectively. Krgovich had proved himself a worthy musical companion during his own set; he's a strong performer (who also used the Rhodes) with a powerful, jazz-inflected singing voice – and he chose great cover songs, originals by '70s folk singer John Martin and Neil Young, to anchor his time. The crowd was too sparse during Krgovich's earlier set, a shame really.
He also told the story of meeting Ashworth for the first time a decade ago in Krgovich's native Vancouver. He said, “hi, I'm Owen.” Krgovich said “that's the loneliest name in the world.” They've been stage-sharing pals ever since. Ashworth repeated the story during his set.
As a trio at Du Nord, Krgovich, Ashworth, and Weinmann turned nearly country fair folk, and moved onward to “The Sister You Never Had,” an elegant waltz, followed by “Christmas in Oakland.” The crowd made a light whooping sound at the mention of Oakland and Ashworth deadpanned, “Oh, you guys know Oakland?”
Much of the set was filled with the tracks off A Shut-Ins Prayer, but Advance Base also dropped in new songs like “Christmas in Milwaukee” and another that told the twee-cute story about a lost cat.
That song supposedly told the story of Ashworth's cat back home in Chicago, how it ran away and they covered the neighborhood with “Lost Cat” posters, which totally bummed out his friends. He sang of idiot well-wishers who promised the cat would simply return on its own, and of checking the local SPCA religiously. Straining to hear the end of the sung story, we smiled as we learned the once-forlorn cat had been found, and was home safe.
Ashworth ended the set by asking the crowd if they had any questions (favorite color is blue, favorite baseball team is the Giants), and telling a joke about kids getting nutty when parents are out of town, all this before profusely thanking us for being there with him on this weirdly nostalgic evening for a brand new act.