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On Friday night at McCabe’s, I See Hawks in L.A. played a release show for their new album New Kind of Lonely. Joining them on the bill were their like-minded compadres, Old Californio. Both bands write and play songs about the beauty, past and present, of living in California. While both are exceptional electric country rock bands, Friday night was a stripped down acoustic format. With its walls of guitars and its performer-friendly sound system, McCabe’s was a fine choice in which to go unplugged. Onstage, the joining link between the two bands was Paul Lacques, a founding member of the Hawks, and a true MVP who also sat in for the entire Old Californio set on dobro.
What’s in a name, anyway? Consider I See Hawks in L.A. Not that long ago, but certainly a world of change earlier, the L.A. basin was rural farmlands, orchards, creeks, groves and mountains with little or no development. It was a great place to live as a soaring, predaceous bird. Though the landscape has certainly changed, there are still hawks in L.A. We don’t often catch a glimpse of them but when we do see one above the freeway or a business park, it’s a keeper moment of the day. An intrepid hawk reassures us that the bigger picture is still intact; it is a fleeting link to an impressive past. This sentiment surely powers ISHILA’s songwriting.
One of the first things one hears with the Hawks is that they sing together seamlessly. Lacques’ and Rob Waller’s voices mesh tightly and Paul Marshall covers the top end to assemble a sweet, accent-free three part harmony. Waller’s lead vocals sound very familiar, evoking a host of different midrange singers but, happily, he always sounds like the singer of the Hawks.
For New Kind of Lonely the Hawks decided to go very close to all acoustic, and for this show the lineup was Lacques on lead guitar, vocals, and dobro, Waller on lead vocals and guitar, and Marshall on upright bass and vocals. The percussion for the bulk of this set came from their picks, fingers and strings. Interestingly, neither guitar was plugged in, just miked, old school.
The sound on Friday was crystal clear — enough room for the guitars to intertwine while sounding distinct, and nice separation on the bass. Lacques had all kinds of room to embellish and he was on his game, approaching his fills from many tasteful angles. Mostly he played flat-picked bluegrass runs, but he also ornately colored his tone with two note chordal runs and timely flourishes. He didn’t show off with speed or any of the usual guitar trickery — that is just not his approach, though when he needs to be he is very quick. His style was all about using what works best to bring a song vividly to life.
New Kind of Lonely is loaded with strong material, so the night was filled with rich moments. While they do juxtapose urban images with their considerable appreciation for mountains, sky, and the sacredness of the desert in songs like “Mary Austin Sky” they also go further. “The Spirit of Death” was a beautiful song inspired by and dedicated to local fiddle sensation Amy Farris, whose death hit the group hard. “I Fell in Love With The Grateful Dead,” was a light-hearted, descriptive set of recollections, but it was also an interesting piece of music to listen to. Towards the end of the song the Hawks turned on a dime, much like the Dead might have, headed into a jazzy segue for a tasty several moments, then back to the original feel.
The Hawks served up another nice contrast when “Highland Park Serenade” transcended from a fondly wistful, yet resigned present tense description of HP to a marvelous Spanish chorus and instrumental section where you can nearly smell the carne asada cooking as the sun sets. On Friday, Richie Lawrence was on hand (from the deepwater port of Stockton, no less!) to further color the song with his accordion. Lacques’ sounded nothing short of beautiful over the swirl.
About half way through the set the Hawks brought out their charismatic buddy Cliff Wagner, in blue denim overalls, with tats on his forearms, and looking like he might have walked in out of the West Virginia night. He tore it up on the most hillbilly leaning song of the night, “Hunger Mountain Breakdown.” It seemed altogether fitting that he played a banjo with fish inlays down its fret board. No doubt about it, the interplay between Wagner’s banjo and Lacques’ dobro satisfied mightily. And it was fun to watch Lacques dip the slide into a finger picked chord to spin it along.
These are tough times for a talented band struggling to be heard. The internet is an easy place to be heard or downloaded, but it’s very hard to get paid for your music there. In order to finance New Kind Of Lonely the Hawks reached out to their loyal fan base much like public radio does. They offered a creative series of premiums ranging from a day at the shooting range to lessons in composting and terracing techniques with the different band members…and it all worked out. You just have to root for a band with this much talent and adaptive skill to beat the odds and reap some success.
Old Californio went with two acoustic guitars (Rich Dembowski and Woody Aplanap), piano (Levi Nunez), electric bass (Jason Chesney), dobro (Lacques) and an improvised drum kit (Justin Smith on a snare and a suitcase!). Their set was only about a sweet half hour long, but it left us wanting more. It just goes to show that if you have strong tunes they will shine in any format. A good batch of songs is just that!