Last night at Zanzabar was that rare treat when all three acts in the line-up were well-worth seeing for themselves alone. Robert Francis and Lawrence Arabia opened for headliner Fanfarlo, with sets that seemed too short as their only drawbacks. Francis, barefoot on stage, delivered soulful rock songs about hard times and falling in and out of love. Only 22 years-old, he has the artistic assurance of someone who has been around the block a few times, and a warm,deep voice that lends itself well to the emotional lyrics of standout songs like "Junebug" and "Nightfall" from his most recent album, Before the Nightfall on Atlantic Records.
After a six-song set, Francis and his band quickly transitioned over to New Zealander James Milne's Lawrence Arabia. Besides singer and songwriter Milne, the band features Hayden East (keyboard), Martin Keane (bass), Daniel Ward (drums), and Tom Watson (guitar and trumpet). As the crowd packed in, they effused a pleasant, 60's pop vibe with charmers like "Auckland CBD Part Two" with a bit of an afro-beat, and the irresistibly catchy "Apple Pie Bed." I was particularly impressed by the lovely harmonies in "The Beautiful Young Crew," paired with Watson's bright trumpet over the guitars.
The musical pyramid built up to buzz band Fanfarlo, and by the time they took the stage, the crowd had predictably swelled and sardined me mid-pack so that all I could see was the top of front-man Simon Balthazar's head. If you're a fan of live music, it helps to be tall. I'm not. They were four songs in before I wedged my way forward enough to glimpse drummer Amos Memon, bassist Justin Finch, and the rest of the band.
Fanfarlo creates a gorgeously layered sound with multi-instrumentalists: Leon Beckenham's trumpet soars over lush orchestrations of guitar when he's not on keys; Cathy Lucas apparently plays everything, but most often violin and mandolin; and Balthazar switches between electric and acoustic guitars, as well as the odd woodwind. All lend their finely tuned vocals to songs that range from the symphonic and dreamy "I'm a Pilot" to the folkier foot-stomping of the "The Walls are Falling Down."
Each song seems lovingly and intricately crafted, and while Fanfarlo has been compared to other "art" rock bands like Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear, I think they have a distinct sound that really isn't like anyone else. The one similarity that keeps occurring to me is actually to Elvis Costello -- not in the sound so much as the range and musical ambition that I see in Simon Balthazar.