Say the words "Canadian" and "singer- songwriter," and, without fail, Neil Young springs to mind. Match that with a lonesome, whiny voice and a gloriously ragged approach to performing, and the comparison is inevitable. Now, I'm not at all opposed to folk sounding a little like Young or his band Crazy Horse, which is probably why I dug Chad VanGaalen the first time he rolled through Seattle last winter. With his drummer behind him and VanGaalen glancing at index cards stuffed into his front pocket as reminders for which songs to play next, his set was soaring and raw, proof that good artists don't need effects pedals or other tech trickery to get by.
Yet, I had heard rumors that VanGaalen performed as a "one-man band" on Alberta's frigid streets before he signed his first record deal, so when he showed up with drummer in tow, I was a little disappointed. Here I was, hoping for some indie-rock version of Hasil Adkins, and instead I got a two-man outfit, à la the Black Keys. All fine and good: Perhaps all one has to do to be a "one-man band" anymore is play guitar and harmonica at the same time.
Whatever. VanGaalen still put on a good show. And last Saturday at the Showbox, VanGaalen held true to the one-man-band philosophy. He left the drummer in Canada and instead sat hunched over his electric guitar behind a shield of kick and bass drums, which he played with his own two feet. His set was culled mostly from his latest effort, Skelliconnection, which still hasn't grabbed me the way his debut, Infiniheart, did. But witnessing his one-man-band approach on songs like the mountain foot-stomper "Graveyard" and the epic "Dead Ends" gave me a new appreciation for the material. Maybe it's just gratifying seeing VanGaalen's tennis shoes pound the pedal, as opposed to the airy, lysergic-coated production work of his albums.
While the sold-out Showbox crowd (anxious to see farewell headliners Band of Horses) was pretty attentive for a Saturday crowd, VanGaalen left them rapt by closing with a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," proving yet again that Americans are most satisfied when hearing shit they already know.
Opening Act is a weekly look at a band you didn't go to see, but saw anyway—because they played before the band you went to see (and were maybe even better).