Musical Review: Eleni Mandell at the Bootleg

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The Bootleg Theater is one of those places that exists in between the drive between the safety of your house and of your destination.  I ordinarily do not make it a point to stop in an area where every other car on the road is that of a cop, but tonight music calls.

I park my car under a street lamp and hope that no one breaks in while I’m away.  There aren’t many people on the street save for a few out-of-place looking white kids waiting to get inside.  Across the street is an open door, revealing a blindingly white interior, illuminated by the garish lighting of florescent bulbs.  The backs of bodies can be seen scattered in the rows of blue chairs and a late night church service hangs in the air between us and them.  Adjacent is the Brooklyn Bagel shop with its “Open” sign still out, though the lights are off and it is obviously closed.

Brett arrives and we go inside.  By definition I guess this would be a dive club: there’s no flash, no frills, and the PA system consists of two standing speakers like the kind they use at graduation ceremonies.  The building was originally a bra factory back in the 30s.  It is small and gets crowded easily.  The ceilings are high and arched with wooden beams and silver ducts.  Wood panels seamlessly coat the interior, breaking only for a sign reading “Cocktails” with its blinking, mismatched lights and a bar underneath, crowded with people looking to distance themselves from themselves.

When Eleni goes on we are close, but then again everyone is close.  It’s nearly impossible to have a bad view in a place the size of two big living rooms.  The band has no drummer, just a standup bass, Eleni on guitar and vocals, and another electric guitar.  Her voice is like honey, deep and seductive.  The bass chugs along theraputically and the electric guitar makes my toes tingle.  The music is delicate: the kind that dances on your eyelashes and politely raises the hair on your arms.

I watch the strands of the bass vibrate and I see where it is worn in the spot that he repeatedly glides over with his hand.  I count the buttons on Eleni’s dress and note the white pattern over the green.  I can hear the clacking of the pick on the electric guitar.  It’s like watching a band perform in the basement of some house in Wisconsin, and this is what makes dive clubs what they are.

Maybe the intimacy of the actual venue forces an obligation to honesty: three songs in Eleni looks out at the crowd and says something along the lines of, “I often wonder if I should keep playing music…everyday, actually…And then there are nights like these that make me think that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”  It is a vulnerable moment, similar to the time I heard one half of Pedro the Lion tell the audience that his old partner couldn’t be in the band anymore because he needed to raise a family and couldn’t do it on the amount of money they made.  And later on this evening the singer of another act tells us that she’s pregnant and threw up that morning.  Nothing like some good old unfiltered candor.

Eleni’s lyrics are writerly and she sings things like “it wasn’t the time, it was a color” which makes me misty eyed and jealous.  Her songs are charged with an underhanded disappointment but she then sings about “lov(ing) to be hopeful.”  The music makes me want to go back to high school and make papier mache hearts for secret boyfiends.

It’s a shame that the band doesn’t translate as well when taken out of the context of a live show.  Their CDs are slow and pensive and I am far too impatient.  But when placed in a room with them you are fully enveloped in their world, their mood, their contemplative existence.  The lyrics are deeply associative and relatable.

I leave in the middle of the next artist’s set because I have established my loyalty the previous act.  I say goodbye to Brett and exit onto a now very empty street.  I hustle to my car, which has not been broken into as I worried, and head west.  Until next time.

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