Sleeping at Last live @ The Hotel Cafe

Saw Sleeping at Last at the Hotel Cafe tonight. Can a concert be good but also a bit of a letdown? That’s sort of how I feel about this one. SAL made the transition to a one-piece this year, and the show was billed as “An intimate evening of music with Ryan O’Neal”, so I wasn’t expecting full band splendor, but I guess I still thought there’d be fuller arrangements since he had hired a cellist, an electric guitarist, opening act David Hodges to play piano, and a few female vocalists he met on the recent mini-tour for the Breaking Dawn soundtrack. Most of these people were only on stage for a handful of songs, not all of them in a row, so there was a lot of shuffling around, awkward segues, and general inefficiency. A setlist that flows well has honestly never been SAL’s strong suit. They hit a lot of my favorites from Yearbook, plus a few oldies (though nothing from Ghosts), plus the inevitable Twilight song, “Turning Page” (which I was hearing for the first time, and I’ll admit, it’s pretty good).

All in all, I’d say most of the songs translated well live. At a few points I felt like they needed a percussionist or more than two or three people onstage to give a few of them a fuller sound. To be fair, there’s such a wide variety of instruments on Yearbook that I knew there’d be no way to recreate everything faithfully in a live setting. I was just hoping for clever re-arrangements rather than understated ones, I guess. Subbing in the cello for clarinet on “Silhouettes”, or the piano for harp on “Next to Me”, or the electric guitar for keyboards on the old favorite “Umbrellas” was interesting, but there were other times when I felt the supporting players on stage were doing too little. Maybe it’s best that my favorite piece from Yearbook, “Atlantic, The Sea of Atlas”, was not attempted. I can’t see how that would work with a minimal arrangement. They had the cello, piano and ukulele all available, but I can understand how the setlist was limited due to a short amount of time available to work out rehearsals with all of the players involved.

But I’ll commend Ryan for stepping out on his own and losing the reliance on pre-recorded arrangements. SAL’s old shows, even though they were a full three-piece back in the day, would still pipe in the string arrangements and occasional bits of programming from the albums. This time it was all live, all organic. It may have made some of the songs less majestic, but it was arguably a more honest approach. The crowd was amazingly supportive, so perhaps most of the audience prefers SAL this way. (It was fun to hear a few of them debating behind me about how they appreciated the Twilight song and the guest vocalists whose other songs on the soundtrack Ryan kept gushing about, but were conflicted because they couldn’t bring themselves to support the franchise).

David Hodges (former keyboard player for Evanescence, though he’s been around the block a few times since then as a songwriter-for-hire and doing his own solo stuff) opened the show with a brief four-song set. He was OK. Great voice, and he harmonized well with his right-hand man on the guitar, but a lot of the songwriting struck me as rather flat and cliched. I was honestly surprised that, despite him joining SAL on stage for three songs, “Accidental Light” was not performed, since Hodges sang on the studio version of that one.

There was another band performing when we first arrived at the venue, called Vital. They were not on tour with SAL, and it was just coincidental that they had the earlier slot that evening. Imagine a dude sporting dreadlocks with a reggae voice fronting a very poppy rock band, but not in a “crunk rock” sort of way, and you kind of get the picture. They were very energetic and fun, with one hell of a drummer, and a keyboardist doing odd things like playing the keys with drumsticks. A chill, dark club with people seated at tables ordering whiskey sours probably wasn’t the best venue for them, since they gave off more of a “4 PM at your local underground rock festival” sort of vibe. At one point they covered Coldplay’s “Don’t Panic” out of left field, and it got a few cheers of recognition. I’m not sure how well it worked, but it at least says something about their unwillingness to be easily classified.

Sleeping at Last Setlist:

  • Aperture
  • Umbrellas
  • Dear True Love
  • Emphasis
  • January White
  • Naïve
  • Next to Me
  • Silhouettes
  • Turning Page
  • Noble Aim
  • Needle & Thread
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