Rising Rockers Papa Win Adoration at Bottom of the Hill, 7/20/13
Tom Holmes Papa at Bottom of the Hill on Saturday. All photos courtesy Tom Holmes.
Wet Dreams Dry Magic
Bottom of the Hill
Saturday, July 20, 2013
Better than: Papa Roach, obviously.
To understand L.A.-based pop-rock outfit Papa, it pays to first understand its position in the blinkered world of indie music, where every performance is like a frantic doggie paddle against obscurity's undertow. Up until this point, the members of Papa have done just about everything right -- a modest but notable spot at last year's South by Southwest festival, another one at Outside Lands, an almost-too-subtle feature in a Corona advertisement. They'll release their first full-length album in a couple of months, and if it's anywhere near as good as their debut EP, A Good Woman is Hard to Find, they might actually sputter all the way to shore.
For now though, they're at a thrilling and terrifying crossroads: This moment is theirs to convince us that they are worth more than a Facebook like or a lone YouTube view. This moment is their moment, yes, but really it's ours. We owe them nothing, and they have everything to prove, and they're quite aware of this.
Such excitement (or sheer terror, depending on whether you're a "glass half full" type) serves the band quite well on Saturday at Bottom of the Hill. From the moment the members take the stage to the moment they bound off, they execute with dire intensity. Songs aren't so much performed as they are well-argued: Each one, fired out impeccably, acts as a sort of defense of its own relevance. The subtext, which really isn't a subtext at all, is that they came here tonight to get our attention.
But before they have it fully, here's some crucial stuff to know about Papa: Darren Weiss, one of the band's two founding members, is both the lead singer and the drummer (up until last year, he split his time drumming for both Papa and for the San Francisco indie darlings Girls). In many cases, this dynamic can feel like a concession -- you're either stuck with a frontman who plays drums, or a drummer who thinks he can sing -- but it fits well here. Not only is Weiss a dexterous and propulsive skinsman (the reader will be spared wonky and hyper-specific arguments about things like limb independence, snare drum tuning, and fluidity of double strokes); he's also quite pleasant to listen to. He can coo and shout, but his median timbre is somewhere between the Moz and a young Tom Petty.
More crucial stuff: Papa performs as a quartet (along with co-founder and bassist Danny Presant, there's a keyboardist and guitarist onstage tonight), but it's immediately clear that the band revolves with an elastic tension around Weiss. When the members launch into "If You're My Girl, Then I'm Your Man," the mood, which is basically just Weiss's mood, is at once cautious and sardonic. When the song ends, he offers up a deadpan transition: "Now that you're my girl, let's make you pregnant." This, of course, leads in to "Let's Make You Pregnant."
The set rollicks on, lush and exact. While "Ain't It So" manages somehow to come across as both quaint and anthemic, "I Am The Lion King" -- perhaps the most Springsteenian grape in the basket -- feels positively enormous. All the while, the band members follow Weiss's lead. When he is stoic as a stone gargoyle, so are they. When he headbangs, they follow suit. When he sheds his shirt, they unbutton theirs. Near the set's conclusion, Weiss gets up from behind his drums and walks around the stage's perimeter, administering handshakes and high fives. He (along with the rest of the band, of course) looks relieved. They have done all they can. The rest is up to us.
Except that there's room and sufficient desire for an encore, and so here they come again, shiny with sweat, gracious, bewildered. They hammer out a cover of Patti Smith's "Because The Night," and then close the evening with the appropriately titled "Put Me To Work." It's all shouted "Hey!"s and cowboy guitar licks and barroom piano. By the final chorus, the audience is bouncing and singing with frothy zeal. Beer is spilled. A woman, mid-mosh, texts, "Papa is fucking unbelievable!" to a friend. If we are not convinced now, we never will be.
Critic's notebook: From the (forthcoming) Critic's Survival Guide: God forbid you, the unassuming rock journalist, have your name placed on the band's list (as opposed to the wholly separate, and apparently fucking sacred press list) at Bottom of the Hill. Failure to clearly communicate your credentials' baroque (and, in this semi-professional critic's experience, wholly unprecedented) placement will result in such unpleasantries as A) being repeatedly scolded by the disgruntled doorman; B) being scolded again (and again!) by the bouncer; and C) being denied even one pity beer by both aforementioned parties. C'mon, guys.