The hype surrounding Oakland's exciting bossa nova pop outfit, Trail and Ways is strangely underwhelming. It's sizeable in that their HypeM following is massive — at times seeing them eek out The Shins and Grizzly Bears — yet they're still very much a local Bay Area band you can see live for $10. The mixture of considerable digital yet untapped physical notoriety has us at the edge of our seats in fiendish anticipation as to when exactly they'll "break" the scene. Considering they're playing this year's SXSW, it's only time before the quartet is the next thing blowing up on your favorite indie blog. Meanwhile, it's quite possible your hipster roommate still hasn't heard of them — yet.
When we head to San Francisco's Cafe Du Nord to hear these guys, the show has sold out and inquiring minds are being turned away. Inside the band is positioning themselves for their set the way most bands with humble beginnings do: lugging their gear onto the stage, lacing fairy lights and fake sunflowers around speakers and mic stands, fixing their makeup and snapping their suspenders. Their pre-performance rituals are a mix of giddy commotion, greeting friends with exuberant hugs and quietly reciting the setlist to themselves in that "This is normal yet never really that normal" way newish bands often seem to portray. Both their anxiety and their excitement are plainly visible but altogether refreshing. Unbeknownst to them, greater still is the divide in my own head, that they are the performer and I am the eager audience member.
The band's housemate, a standup comic in their household and related concentric circles, supplies some lite comedic action to warm us up. Her schtick is rough around the edges but only the obnoxious seem to mind. Then things get started as frontman Keith Brown, wearing Buddy Holly rims and a genuine nice guy smile, gently guides the crowd through "Speechless" and "No Wisdom" with a shy boyishness that sort of makes us wonder if they're convinced of their own success. "Nunca" is next and it's recognizable to all who have had the pleasure of listening to their music prior. The opening sun-streaked guitar lines, supplied by multi-instrumentalist Hannah van Loon, have listeners cheering boisterously, quieting down just enough to hear Brown coo lyrics that take us meandering through a Southwestern soundscape (or Sao Paolo, as the song references).
There are several things worth mentioning about this band and the first ought to be that all of its members can sing. Crazy how this makes them a huge exception within a genre of music that somehow typically lacks musicians who can, well, sing. They sound like they do on Spotify, only better and more dynamic. While each of them can play an instrument and do far more than hold a note, a large portion of the group's dynamism must be attributed to the women of the band. Bassist, vocalist and songwriter Emma Oppen stands out with vocals that are feminine as much as they are mighty, capturing the ear instantaneously the way Romy Madley Croft or Amber Coffman have done with that cool effortlessness. Several times during the set it was clear certain songs would not be what they are without her warm hooks. Guitarist, violinist and synth mega-maestro, van Loon is an equal force to be reckoned with, particularly when wielding her electric guitar. It's in their live performance that you realize their most distinct melodies ("Border Crossing", "Mtn Tune" and "Nunca", most specifically) are made possible by her adroit guitar skills.
This is not to say that Brown or drummer Ian Quirk are easy to overlook at all. As much as Oppen's guitar solos led the folksy cattle call, Quirk neatly held everything together with tenacious precision and a decisiveness responsible for tempering the pop lilt of these travel sonnets. He wrote and sang "Make Room", an edgy and evocative change in pace off their 2011 tropicalia-inspired release, Temporal. And when the crowd demanded an encore, Brown delivered a satisfying end to a memorable night, transforming Miguel's bedroom-rousing single, "Sure Thing" into an irresistible late night indie love jam, R&B inflections notwithstanding.
It's likely not everyone in attendance entered Cafe Du Nord with intentions of seeing Trails and Ways live but rest assured, everyone leaving the venue would be intent to do so in the future. If these savvy bossanova pop pioneers are playing in your city, promise yourself you'll see them.
Upcoming Tour Dates:
2/8 – The New Parish, Oakland CA
3/9 – Bootleg Bar, Los Angeles CA
3/12 – SXSW, Austin TX