Black Saturday: Narwhal

It’s 8:30 on a Saturday night and I’m cruising down H-1, glad I am a couple hours shy of the Waikiki bar rush. My destination is The Venue, an aptly named rock club in China Town (or Chi-To, as I like to call it), where I’m hoping to not miss Narwhal at 9:00.

Now it’s a couple past nine and I’m walking down Bethel. There’s something happening at the Hawaii Theater and the sharply dressed culturalites are mixing with the more tragically hipster crowd outside of Bethel Street Gallery. I try to ignore them while I search for the completely unmarked black glass door that is the entrance to The Venue. As I approach the supposed address, a group of three twenty-ish girls approach from the opposite direction.

“Is this the-?” I begin.

“-Entrance to The Venue? Yeah, this is it. It doesn’t look like they’re open yet,” one of them finishes my sentence. “Who are you here to see?”

I eye the three and immediately recognize one of them. “Her,” I say, pointing at Erica, lead singer of the three-piece rock outfit Narwhal. Giggles all around.

After a drink during the bands’ soundcheck, I find myself in The Venue. It’s a fairly spacious, concrete-floored room with a smooth industrial appearance. There are both high tables and a raised couch area to sit and watch in addition to the large standing space in front of the stage. The bar opposite the stage has a very nice selection of beers and hard alcohol and the bartenders are friendly and talkative. Three dollar grenades of Mickey’s definitely didn’t hurt my desire to return either, though they’re only open when there is a show on.

Narwhal comes onto the small stage. The other two members I’ve yet to meet, Adam on drums (or skins, as it seems hip to say these days) and Nick on lead guitar, are joined tonight by the Hell Camino’s bassist Michael Camino. Strangely, Erica and Michael have both opted for plaid button-downs in the otherwise downplayed rock fashion of the band.

Someone from the forty person crowd heckles the singer until she produces a narwhal plushie from her bag and attaches it to her mic stand. This appears to be the unofficial start of the show and the muscled drummer counts them into their first song, Fist for a Face.

The music is loud, fast, and paradoxically tight and loose at the same time in a way that can only be described as very Rockabilly. The vocals (and the drum-guitar lineup) ring of an early Yeah Yeah Yeahs, with Erica’s voice jumping from low singing to a voice-cracking shriek that adds punch to the well-timed pauses and breakdowns of their short songs. The lyrics are mostly unintelligible over the distortion of the instruments and the harsh microphone the singer seems quite proud of.

Nick’s lead guitar has many chances to shine as he is afforded ample solo time, though its quite underplayed and rhythmic during the majority of the set. His red, hollow-bodied Gibson is beautiful in The Venue’s simple, but effective, lighting and he bobs along with the beat, seemingly in his own happy place.

On drums, Adam is a beast. His speedy beats are surprisingly complex and tight. As a long-time drummer, I’m amazed at his stamina and ability to glaze over what could be painful missteps by the other members of the band (yes, I did see those smiles cracking).

My two favorite songs, Cadillac and Tell Me, are both represented tonight, though I’m not sure if this is due to a small repertoire or dumb luck. Cadillac’s early build up and snappy vocals had me up front and dancing, though the others in the quickly growing crowd seemed more reserved over their boogie than I was. Tell Me is, in my opinion, their best song. It has steady, harsh verses broken up by a fantastic build up that forgoes the microphones and relies instead upon the raw screams of the band (and crowd). I will freely admit I have no idea what the words I am singing along with are, but I’m hooked.

Narwhal plays a powerful eight song set and I’m glad to have taken the trip to Chi-To to see it. They very graciously accept my offer of free beers and we chat for a while. All three of them are friendly and remember me from some Internet correspondence. I am a huge sucker for approachable bands, and Narwhal lives up to my expectations. I’m excited for a new split they say they’re recording and they seem excited that I want to hear it.

I’m not entirely sure what the Honolulu scene is like yet, but Narwhal is the most enjoyable band I’ve seen so far. Their combination of speedy music and fearless vocals make them worth the cover at any of the bars they play on a seemingly weekly basis and I will surely be at their next show.

P.S.: Thanks to the bartender at BambuTwo (Andy, I think?) for keeping me entertained while waiting for the show and the gentleman who let me out of the parking garage for free because I didn’t have any cash. You guys made my already excellent night even better.

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