The Observatory in Santa Ana is a peculiar venue. Rarely is there only one band performing at the concert hall, but two, separated by a soundproof wall, usually of dissimilar genres.
Ducktails was scheduled to play in the smaller of the two rooms—what The Observatory calls the “Constellation Room”—while a Mexican punk rock band played nextdoor. This made for a spectacularly diverse crowd when grabbing a beer or taking a piss in between songs. But I was especially impressed by venue staffers’ uncanny ability to correctly judge concert-goers’ music tastes.
“Ducktails?” the doorwoman said as she checked our tickets.
“That way,” she pointed.
There’s no door leading into the “Constellation Room,” only a tall, black curtain. We entered just as the opening act was finishing their set, looking as if they were happy to be done performing for people who paid to see someone else. The four disheveled men that made up Ducktails walked onto the stage and began making small adjustments to their pedals, plugging in a cord here and a cord there, exchanging indiscernible words with each other or signaling to the sound guy in the back of the room.
What began as the solo recording project of Real Estate’s guitarist Matt Mondanile, Josh DeCosta (bass), Ross Chait (drums) and Malcom Perkins (guitar) turned Ducktails into more than a one-man band. Together, under pink lights overhead, they made sweeter music than Mondanile had ever been able to alone.
They are a band that thrives on upbeat riffs and melodic dances between a rhythm and solo guitar, both with the reverb turned all the way up. As Mondanile began to bob his head, then his shoulders, then his legs, the music gained momentum too. But while I could see his mouth moving, I couldn’t hear his voice.
Mellow music calls for mellow musicians, resulting in an equally mellow audience. The listeners swayed side to side calmly throughout the show, and were proper headbangers whenever the music reached an arc. For the most part the set list inspired a general one-person slow dance or a half-hearted hop. Not that anything else was expected. Ducktails isn’t on your average rave playlist.
It’s true that with only about 50 people in the room I stood very close to the stage, but unlike other concerts I’ve been to the music was painfully loud (louder than if I were in the front row of a show for an artist who is on your average rave playlist) which served to further complicate the already complicated equalization. In the few times Mondanile’s voice broke through the static it sounded pitchy, like he was having trouble hearing himself.
On their records, Ducktails’ sound is immaculate: The guitars are smooth, the beat hits with perfect accuracy and Mondanile sings with the voice of a stoned angel. But live, the singer’s voice is too weak to power over the other instruments. He may be a member of an unfortunate group of singers who require a recording studio to bring their vocals to life. He was tonight.
Taking grafts from each of their past three albums, Ducktails did the audience well in making sure to check crowd favorites off the list. A band like theirs owes most of its success to a group of about five or six very popular songs, and they showed their entertainment smarts by avoiding the blunder of playing new material only. Even then, a keen ear and an eye capable of reading lips were required to be able to identify a song’s title. As for album title, that was easy enough.
By the end of the show, which cost $13 per ticket, the audience was in high spirits after Ducktail’s performed one of their most popular songs, “Killin’ the Vibe.” Despite the fact that Mondanile’s lyrics were practically impossible to comprehend, we walked out of the theater with a look on our faces that seemed to say, “at least we got to hear some great music.” It was true. We did. Assuming you have a broad interpretation of the word.
Date: July 17, 2016
Location: Constellation Room at The Observatory
Photo by Nicole Busch