September 7th, 2005
The Derby, Silverlake, CA
I had been stuck in traffic outside of a concert by the band Chicago, for nearly an hour, surrounded by former hippies in their BMWs. Ordinarily, such a scene would be the last place you'd find the likes of me, but my destination was not the Greek Theatre to see that ancient rock outfit trot out their nostalgic hits; I was headed to another venue nearby--a small nightclub--to see a singer/performance artist, Michael Mangia, present what was described as a multi-media concert event.
After parking my car a few blocks away, I walked into the sparsely populated Derby, a big, old fashioned nightspot highlighted by a large circular bar in the middle of the room, and a wooden ceiling that looked like it belonged in a church. Expensive drinks, odd bands, a vacantly pretty female bartender; the Derby is my kind of place of worship. I sat at the bar, dropping way too much money for a beer, and turned toward the stage, which was decked out with balloons, odd instruments (including a steel guitar, a harmonium, and a grand piano), megaphones of differing sizes, and small old black and white televisions, showing static.
Once Mangia, decked out in a light blue coat and tails worn over blue jeans, and his highly capable band took the stage and began to play, it was made clear that all the weird trappings were a bit deceptive. As Mangia explained later, the multi-media portion of this supposed piece of performance art was ditched because of what he termed "projector drama". (He'd filmed some pieces of video that were supposed to explain the songs and be projected over the band members, but I guess the projector didn't work.) So tonight, all the drama would be provided by Mangia and his band; just four guys onstage playing songs.
Don't get me wrong; there were weird, interesting touches to the show. Mangia sang some of his lyrics through megaphones, played an odd cover of Radiohead's "High and Dry" alternating between his piano and an accordion-like harmonium. Mangia's bass and guitar player both sat on stools facing him, giving the show a loose and intimate feel.
But overall, I thought this was standard rock fare, and that the extra touches and visual traps that Mangia added to his show seemed empty and unnecessary. This guy is clearly talented and I thought his crisp, well written songs came across great in his performance. The crowd grew restless and started talking through the last half of the show, but it didn't bother me too much because this peculiar kind of music can be enjoyed perfectly well as the background of an intense conversation. The breathiness of his singing style, his allegorical lyrics and his general attempts at weirdness (not to mention the fact that he plays rock music on a piano) bring to mind Tori Amos, but to me, he sounded more like Elton John. Which isn't a bad thing. By most any reasonable standard, Elton John's a goddamn pop music genius. I'm not sure you could pin that label on Mangia yet, but he does have a really neat songwriting gimmick, something that most other piano tunesmiths lack; disturbing, bleak songs that sound upbeat. His creations are demented doses of pessimism and doom that I'd feel comfortable listening to in front of my grandmother--provided, of course, that she didn't try to understand the lyrics. If she did, I'd be quickly disowned and lose all rights to any inheritance. I'm not sure that listening to Mangia is worth risking that, but he is clearly expressing his inner darkness with this stuff, and while he has embraced a certain pop sensibility, his songs aren't going to wind up being warbled by an American Idol contestant anytime soon. So he's got that going for him.
I'm still curious to check out the multi-media portion of his show, and see whether or not that adds to or detracts from his music. But as it stands now, even without added visuals, Mangia's talent and prospects are well worth keeping an eye on.