Bonnie and the Bang Bang Lights Up the Library

Editor
Graduate Division

The music of Bonnie and the Bang Bang sounds as if it would be best enjoyed from the back of a smoke-filled, dimly lit roadside bar, but maybe that’s just me. 

The Oakland band’s 2013 album The Dark Dream, for the most part, pervades the senses with what they term “thrash folk” — that is, energetic blows of guitar, banjo, keyboard and drums with an almost Western sound. 

Accompanying dark-themed lyrics that are often partly shouted by frontman Patrick James Stiles, this music definitely does not beg for a quiet setting.  It was surprising, then, that Bonnie and the Bang Bang’s acoustic set last week at the UCSF Library, part of Campus Life Services Arts & Events’ Music in the Library series, was so successful.  

Stiles remarked on the great acoustics of the room and on the fact that “Nobody in the band is actually named Bonnie,” as the band warmed up the gathering of UCSF students and staff with what they called their “light stuff.” 

This included songs found only on their 2012 EP Ode to Darkness, as well as songs from their latest release.  The banjo, played by Jake Dineen, was given the spotlight during a dreamy rendition of the emotional “Simple Ships,” and Stiles even pulled out a melodica during their bluegrassy opener, “In Betweens.”  

The band charged into the second half of the set with the exquisitely near-dissonant guitar riffs of Joe Warren and Dineen, who used a guitar slide to achieve the unique sound in the song “Medicine Man.” 

In addition to other songs from The Dark Dream, such as “I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost” (lovely even without the keyboard), they surprised the crowd with a nicely harmonized cover of Miike Snow’s “Animal.”  The highlight of the hour, however, was a haunting delivery of their song “Zombies! Pt. 1,” thanks in part to the band’s beautifully melancholy back-up vocals.

Throughout the show, the band’s members remarked repeatedly that they should do these types of acoustic performances more often.  This was a little unexpected, considering that their latest release has been regarded by some as rather aggressive when compared to their earlier sound. 

While I do hope they decide to do more acoustic shows in the future, I also like the heavier sound of The Dark Dream.  The LP benefits from keyboardist Jonathan Kepke and bassist Robby Cronholm, who inject a bluesy component into many of the album’s tracks.  

However, I still felt fortunate to get a chance to hear some stripped-down, strings-heavy arrangements of the band’s repertoire, since it allowed each song’s basic musical elements to shine.  

When I pressed them on which direction they were going from here, Stiles remarked that their new sound will be “really interesting,” saying that they were working on a new song with an “indie, dancey, dark, hypnotic vibe.”  I’m looking forward to that release. 

Given the audience’s enthusiasm and warm reception of the band, it’s puzzling that some people don’t know about this concert series. With events four to six times a year, Music in the Library is sponsored by the Sarah B. Childs Fund and is spearheaded by Events Producer Pilar Deer, who persuades bands to play unplugged sets in the sunny Lange Reading Room.  

The result is a rare opportunity to see up-and-coming artists such as Bonnie and the Bang Bang in an intimate, unique setting.  Judging from my experience, the opportunity to catch these bands on the rise is well worth heading to the library for a bite to eat and for a performance that may well be one of a kind.

The next Music in the Library performance will be Wednesday, October 16 in the Lange Reading Room, on the fifth floor of the UCSF Library.  It will feature singer/songwriter Christopher Gerard.  Admission is free, and light refreshments and chair massages will be offered. For more information visit www.campuslifeservices.ucsf.edu/artsevents.

To check out Bonnie and the Bang Bang, go to bonniehellabangs.com.