Photos by Nina Barry.
Let’s get this out of the way: I am a big fan of Camera Obscura‘s records, have been since the first time I heard Tracyanne Campbell’s delicious vocalizing on “Eighties Fan.” When I first saw them play, half a decade ago at an in-store in Los Angeles, I was terribly disappointed by the band’s utter lack of stage presence. Band members stood so catatonic that the show could not rightly be called a “performance.” Their music sounded as glorious as ever, so sadly tinged and elegant, but it may as well have been created by cardboard cutouts.
As a fan, I gave them a pass, chalked it up to having to play on a stage in the middle of a record store in front of a distracted audience, and tried not to think about it too frequently as they continued to release gorgeous music.
When the Glaswegians played Denver on June 1st, 2009, I was in their corner, hoping to see their live show redeemed. In the intervening years, Camera Obscura had enlivened their sound, moving away from the graceful, slow songs that defined their debut toward moments of uplifting swirl like “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” and “Let’s Get out of This Country.”
The band, by virtue of their fey ways and national origin, have always been Belle and Sebastian’s little sister–extremely talented in their own right but relegated to living in the shadow of an elder sibling who was always a step ahead. If Camera Obscura’s selection of tempos have evolved over the past few years, it may be a direct debt to Belle and Sebastian, who realized after a few albums that they, too, would have to expand upon their repertoire to stay engaging and relevant.
Would Camera Obscura’s live performance follow suit? Unfortunately for the dedicated crowd that packed the Bluebird Theater on a Monday night, the answer was a decided “no.” Their stage presence has grown by incalculable baby steps since I last saw them, not the leaps and bounds I had hoped for. At times, especially during slower songs, it almost felt as though there were a madman lurking unseen in the wings, forcing the band to play their compositions at gunpoint. Were there some sort of artistic statement to be derived from their being disaffected and disinterested, I could try to sympathize; however, as a legitimate fan catching a rare date from an international act, I felt cheated. In fact, I dare you to scan these accompanying photos for a smile underneath those stage lights.
In fairness, it was not all bad news that evening. It is obvious which songs are still a thrill for Camera Obscura to recreate onstage, namely, anything with a rousing beat. The pulse of the title track from their new LP, My Maudlin Career, genuinely energized the band, but moments of this sort were too few and far between. After nearly every song, the crowd clamored for “Lloyd!” as a means of breaking up the monotony of the too-slow set, only to be chastened by Campbell with the schoolmarmish reply of “Patience! Patience.”
In the end (pardon the pun), the band opened a two song encore with the eagerly awaited track, and it proved to be the highlight of the evening. Energy levels were elevated, both onstage and off, and it was wonderful to see what Camera Obscura can deliver when their hearts and minds are in it. In a tragicomic twist, the set was then capped off with what can rightfully be called a “jam,” that most egregious of concert offenses. It was clear that few in the audience recognized the final song, which dragged on far too long even if it did evoke the first semblance of a performance from Campbell, who dropped down to her knees in true dramatic fashion. For the crowd, however, the feeling was that of having been duped into walking the plank; the previous song raised the bar, and the final one clubbed you over the head with it.
Now it is clear to me that Camera Obscura is an ex you still care about too much to really spend time with. Sure, you’ll follow up with them from time to time, check in on their Facebook page, listen to their new albums. Seeing them face to face is just too painful. I’m sorry, Camera Obscura: we can’t see each other anymore. But I’ll keep buying and loving your albums, remembering what could have been.