Chasms searches for understated consistency

Jess Garten/Courtesy

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Cafe du Nord is a small venue. Literally underground, the place could be mistaken for nothing more than a restaurant if it weren’t for the soundboards and drumset. Such an unassuming, informal location was fitting given the easygoing, conversational nature of the Chasms show that took place there Dec. 3.

Chasms, comprising Jess Labrador and Shannon Madden, was conceived in San Francisco. In that way, this show possessed an air of homecoming. The sense of return, of coming home, lent the show — and the whole night — an informal feel, verging on intimate. The audience moved among the open space in front of the stage, the tables, the chairs and back. Labrador mingled in the audience prior to Chasms taking the stage. It was clear, as Labrador was approached by people bearing hugs and flowers, that a number of the audience members personally knew Madden and Labrador.

Chasms’ music is in turns calming and unsettlingly eerie, a characteristic amplified within the group’s live performance. With only two people, the band still manages to create complex and multilayered overlapping sounds. Madden layered bass lines on top of drum beats while Labrador layered her voice upon her own voice again and again. Songs shifted between and balanced on Labrador’s echoing vocals and Madden’s chaotic rhythms and vibrating bass lines. Live, the set seemed to wander aimlessly, yet the longer you listened, the more it seemed that this wandering was intentional — the desired effect.

As the night came to a close, the memory of the Ghost Ship fire, which happened one year and one day earlier, became increasingly difficult for the band to ignore — Madden lost her brother, Griffin, in that fire. The tragedy had a devastating effect on the Bay Area artistic community. Before Chasms played the final song, Madden opened up about the fire. She took a moment to remember those who “got picked up by a UFO” that night, reading the list of names of all 36 who perished.

The audience fell silent for the mic’d recitation of names. The sense was that this tragedy personally impacted a number of individuals there that night, both on and off the stage. Each name was tinged with emotion. When Madden finished, Chasms quietly began the final song. The song was not particularly climactic, nor did it differ much from the preceding set. When the duo finished, the stage lights went off. Chasms thanked the crowd from an unlit stage. The show was over.

The conclusion of the show was abrupt, almost anti-climactic. Chasms did not even exit the stage — the only indication that the set was over was the absence of stage lighting. As the audience members mingled, some leaving, some turning to converse, Madden and Labrador quietly collected their equipment. Whether or not this muted finale was negative depends on what the audience was looking for, though such a conclusion certainly contributed to the familiarity between Chasms and the audience. The show carried a sense of being by and for the Bay’s unique artistic community.

In line with its unassuming ending, Chasms’ performance throughout the night was subdued, sometimes to a detrimental extent. The band’s set was consistent but not varied, and at times it seemed to flirt dangerously close to repetition. That being said, the duo leaned into its understated presence. Where the opening acts employed flashing lights, Chasms played the majority of its set enshrouded in soft, consistent, blue and pink lighting. While Madden’s bass playing erupted with movement and dynamism, both performers’ unique vocals and instrumentation were, for the most part, still contained — even restrained.

One might argue that this containment, near repetition, is Chasms’ modus operandi. The music, the lights, the mic that echoes back everything that is said or sung, all create a kind of peaceful lull. The moment is suspended, as is the audience, right until the lights go off and the bass fades. Only then is the spell broken.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].