Dreaming Isabelle @ LaTaza Fest

On stage, four men in blue shirts and blue jeans played a solid 12 song set early Saturday afternoon at LaTaza’s Low Country Broil, a fundraiser for coffee growers in Guatemala. As the morning fog broke into sticky afternoon sunshine, sweat dripped into their eyes as they sang and onto the stage as they moved with their instruments. The blue color scheme of the band was quickly usurped by the glistening of sweat and the drummers glittering snare. Despite the sparse crowd and the heat, Dreaming Isabelle played with conviction and as much energy as they could muster.

There is something about Dreaming Isabelle that sounds like Charlottesville. That doesn’t mean they sound like Dave Matthews. They are a new generation of rockers who focus on writing well-crafted songs while referencing the jammier roots of this area. For the most part, their music is focused and forward driven, but they keep this clarity from becoming “pop” by setting the solid riffs and vocal harmonies within sparse and ambient textures. These laid back sections create the mood at the beginning of their songs, inviting the audience into song. Once there we can share in the energy they feel as they drive forward with solid riffs and emotive vocals. While some of their hooks might sound plain in another context, their arrangement skills make their songs memorable and energetic. Their music is upbeat and largely major with clean tones that makes the music stick, yet my favorite moments in their set where when they broke away into more dissonant, distorted and minor tones.

DI has good sounds. Hart, playing a fret-less six string Carvin bass not only provides solid rhythmic footing for DI, but also breaks out melodies of his own in the sparser moments of the songs. Chris provides pop and smack with a birch shelled Yamaha adorned with a heavy splash and timbale. He keeps a solid groove across rhythmic changes and provides some juicy rhythmic dissonance at just the right moments. The guitarists Jon and Daniel trade rhythms and riffs in such a way that Jon’s effective lead does not steal the limelight. Occasionally, Jon’s lead would serve to support and flesh out the harmony of the song, rather than play over top of the band. I hope to hear more of this from him in the future.

Its refreshing to hear a rock band that cares about their vocals. Daniel’s lead voice was familiar and pleasant, referencing acoustic-driven rock. He was supported by the harmonizing skills of Jon. While I could see that the drummer had a mic and was sometimes singing, he was too far away from the mic to be heard clearly. There are some good voices in the band, and I’m sure they will gel even more as everyone grows comfortable with their microphones in the live setting.

In their biography, DI notes that they try to retain the intimacy of the bar in the larger club setting. Their interactions with the audience at this outdoor festival showed this. In the first set, they joke that Rozie is their southern rock tribute. Predictably, someone in the audience yells – “Free Bird!” The band deftly handles this by getting everyone to yell Free Bird to get it out of our system. Their on-stage banter is shy and sometimes self-effacing, but always in good humor.

Its never accurate to label a band’s genre, mostly because the band will tell you you’re wrong and so will the audience members. What you hear depends on what you know and like (or dislike). I heard My Bloody Valentine, I heard Survivor, I heard the Beatles, I heard Jimmy Eat World, I heard Skynard (even though they refused to play Free Bird). As they played I wondered if there is such a thing as Southern Post-Emo? I’m not sure what it would mean or if DI would lead this trend, but its what I thought of while listening.

The band tells me after their set that they are still experimenting with their sound. The last song Not Missing You, they tell me is their “rock direction,” which I take to mean a harder direction. This song begins with both guitars, a Rickenbacker and a Guild, riffling in unison, revealing a strong musical bond between the guitarists. It also has a more driven back beat, but these were not what caught my attention. I was drawn in by the cut time section where Jon’s Guild creates a dreamy, but gritty reprieve from the rigid and contained sections. The contrast makes the song. At the end, Jon toggles between pickups and breaks out of the harmonic structure with feedback. I have a soft spot for noisy guitars, so I’d like to hear more of this. This song demonstrates the best of their abilities to move between ambient sounds and straight ahead rock. At times the ambient sections of other songs could use more rhythmic discipline and direction. I’m not suggesting they lose the ambient parts, but to work toward expressing their distinction.

On the more acoustic end of the spectrum, their strongest song was Mine, which will be coming out on their new EP in November. You can download it from their myspace now.

www.dreamingisabelle.com