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May 5, 2002 -- B Complex (Portland, Oregon)

By: Stan Hall

While waiting to enter Portland's B Complex (each patron had to endure a bag check and body pat down more thorough than in some airports), our queue had a quiet chuckle as we heard the music being piped through an outside speaker Air's "How Does It Make You Feel?" If the headlining band, the British ambient soul-groove outfit Zero 7, picked the music, they had a droll sense of humor. The band has labored under a sometimes unfair, sometimes well-deserved label of being nothing more than pretenders to Air's retro-lounge standard-bearing throne.

This touring version of Zero 7, which was playing the final show of a three-week U.S. tour, consisted of six instrumentalists, two backup singers and three continually shifting lead vocalists. After the musicians warmed up with an instrumental that sounded a lot like the Small Faces' "Ogden's Nut Gone Flake" (albeit with a theremin freak-out at the end) the strikingly slim and confident Mozez strolled on to the stage to sing one of the best songs on "Simple Things," the gorgeous title track. Mozez put his all into the performance, but was hampered by a band that was still trying to locate its groove. Perhaps it had something to do with a poor sound mix that made the bass, which is so vital to the group's sound, tinny and nearly inaudible. The drums were loud and agreeably syncopated, but they had nothing to lock into -- thus, none of that all-important groove. This problem lasted through the following song, "I Have Seen," and poor Mozez had about half of his time in the spotlight virtually wasted. Things weren't going well; Mozez sensed a lack of enthusiasm and exhorted the audience to get into it, but the response was half-hearted. Fortunately, the technical snafu was corrected by about halfway through the next song, the Sophie Barker-sung "Destiny," and with the sudden low-end boost came a surge in confidence that provided both relief and something to really move people. In the back of the room, a number of audience members (the age of the crowd skewed older, probably because of the band's airplay on a couple of Portland lite-rock radio stations), started that blissful gyrating redolent of Grateful Dead concerts.

The set stuck mostly to tunes from the group's debut album, "Simple Things," alternating between instrumental workouts and more structured, vocal-showcasing compositions. Barker, who appeared to have been soaking up that day's Cinco de Mayo celebrations, nevertheless impressed with her strong voice. Sia Furler, who sang lead on "Distractions" and shared the mic with Barker on "In the Waiting Line," was far more tentative and wispy. Both singers, while blessed with excellent pipes, don't have much stage presence and have "career session vocalist" written all over them. Mozez, on the other hand, has star potential; he made the most of his second chance with a dynamic reading of "This World" and got the crowd somewhat excited with some vocal freelancing on a handful of other songs. His was the only cogent musical personality that emerged from the entire set, and Binns and Hardaker would do well to make him the face of Zero 7 in the future. Unlike, say, the duo from Air, he has a sincerity and enthusiasm that would give this project a much-needed identity.

Air and Zero 7 share a similar sense of groove and pacing, not to mention a defining love of the Fender Rhodes keyboard, but the differences between the two groups are, in some ways, quite distinct. While Air revels in kitsch, irreverence and its all-encompassing Frenchness, the production duo of Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker (the brain trust of Zero 7) have strived for a sound that's stately, classicist and utterly anonymous, sublimating their own personalities and giving the limelight to an ever-changing cast of singers who may or may not be actual band members. In some ways, such an emphasis on the music is something to be admired, but in Zero 7's case, the listener can have difficulty knowing upon what or whom to latch. "Simple Things" is a fine collection of mid-tempo grooves, impeccable production and the occasional real emotion, but it's also very easy to ignore, making it ideal background music for bedroom foreplay (Air's "Virgin Suicides" soundtrack still takes the lead in that department), cocktail parties or restaurant clatter. It's hard to care deeply about this band, so how could their concert really enrapture the listener? Why not just fill up the room and crank the CD really loud?

In the end, Zero 7's Portland performance partially fulfilled these fears, but provided enough subtle thrills to justify the live band's existence. Two words of advice, though: more Mozez!

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