Great Northern, The Dears @ Echoplex 5/23/09

At first glance, the pairing of Great Northern and Dears seems like an unlikely duo to grace the same stage. While Great Northern are based in L.A., The Dears call Quebec home; one features a female lead singer who exudes grace under fire, while the other is fronted by a tenor whose dripping sweat is as much a mainstay as his leather jacket. And, just for good measure, The Dears formed nearly a generation ago while Great Northern is on tour for their second album.

Still, there they were on May 23, each taking their turn trying to wow the Echoplex crowd who learned, after a sometimes amazing, but more often average show, that the bands' similarities far outweigh their differences.

Great Northern was first.

The L.A.-based quintet, fronted by Rachel Stolte and Solon Bixler both taking their turn on vocals and guitar, returned to Southern California on the strength of their beautiful second full length album, Remind Me Where the Light Is, wherein the band picks up where they left off in 2007 with Trading Twilight for Daylight. By most standards, the album is an epic piece of rock n roll, with Stolte's exaggerated and angelic voice clinging to each stanza like maple on a sap.

At the Echoplex, they easily transitioned from studio to stage. Opening with the album's first song, "Story" set the tone. Stolte sings "Tell me a secret, tell me a story/Pass it around, get me some glory" and the crowd waves back in concurrence. There is agreement, there is parity, there is a tacit understanding that Great Northern are professional musicians whose live shows are a reckoning force of great delight.

They tread deliberately through Remind Me and sparingly touched on Trading, playing their debut album's first single, "Home" with Stolte telling the crowd: "Now, we get to sleep in our own beds."

Given their familiarity with city, venue and the warm response from the near-sold out crowd, Great Northern easily connected with the audience in an intimate and deep manner; many sang, others clapped in rhythm and even more shook their arms to keep in lock-step with drummer Dusty Rocherolle.

But it was Stolte and Bixler who packaged and sold the show. The two have a charisma and kinship that translates well, reminding us that rock and roll, in its truest form, is made up of three simple ingredients: love, rhythm and happiness.

The Dears have a similar duo at the head of their seven-member band. Lead vocalist Murray Lightburn and keyboardist Natalia Yanchak, who backs Lightburn on the mic at times, play off each other like a tennis match. But where the Great Northern pair are each flush with passion in separate but distinct ways, the Dears' Yanchak, despite her mesmerizing voice, often looks barbie-doll bored while Lightburn dripped with the hard-earned sweat of 14-years of shows. Its dichotomy was distracting and way too incongruous for a band that has been together for as they.

Yanchak's starry eyed stare was not unique. As Lightburn drenched on stage, most of the other six members looked forlorn, bored and altogether out of it. And this was despite Lightburn's best attempts at showmanship.

The lead singer started the show with the slow-burning "Dream Job" off of their newest release, Missiles, which featured Lightburn staggering his way through the crowd with mic and flashlight in hand. It was a man-of-the-people act that always goes over well, no matter who happens to be singing.

As he weaved and sang his way to the stage, his band members slowly walked on, lending their back-up voices and donning instruments. It was a slow, deliberate start to the show that would unfortunately me more of a metaphor for a show that lacked any real charisma despite Lightburn's obvious appeal.

Missiles itself is an average album for a band that has flirted with greatness. End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story, the band's first studio album and a critically well-received work of art, was followed by the equally pleasing No Cities Left. But with Gang of Losers in 2006 and Missiles released this year in the U.S., the band has lost some of its creative bite that has so endeared fans to Lightburn and his rotating band.

Fear not, all was not lost. The Dears did manage to whip the crowd into frenzied fandom with the wonderful "Disclaimer," which opens Missiles. With the nearly 7-minute anthem, the band hit their stride and convinced many what they might have already known: The Dears are at their best when each instrument and voice is used in harmonious synchronicity. Unfortunately, that was already 45-minutes into the show and was less of starting off point than an apex that would soon begin to fade.

While the pairing of Great Northern and The Dears made for good theater, it was the latter whose lack of overall zeal cut down what should have been a more spirited show.