One eskimO opened for the sold-out Michael Franti & Spearhead show at The Orange Peel last night. If it seemed an odd choice at first — for the indie-pop London-based quartet to open for gregarious, positive reggae-tinged/hip-hop outfit Spearhead — the audience seemed completely ready to accept One eskimO (one listener remarked, “Well, if Michael Franti likes them…”). One eskimO started its string of dates opening for Franti following a successful appearance at Coachella. No doubt the Franti connection puts One eskimO — who is touring in support of full-length album, The Adventures of One eskimO, which includes the single “Kandi” — in front of huge audiences.
That fact — the sold-out crowds — might actually be a bit daunting to the British band. On stage at the Orange Peel all four musicians seemed shy, with lead singer Kristian Leontiou barely speaking and both guitarist Pete Rinaldi and drummer Adam Falkner hiding behind their hair. Bass and horn player Jamie Sefton is the most dynamic of the group, mainly due the fact that switching between instruments requires him to go from seated (he plays a semi-acoustic fretless bass) to standing (for his flugelhorn solos).
But if One eskimO tends toward introspection it works because 1) these are four stellar musicians. The instrumentation is a clean blend of jazz foundations, finger-style guitar and a deep, thick grooves that Falkner accomplishes with samples, kick drums, mallets and bushes. His style, perhaps more so than the others, is inventive and bold, steering clear of the traditional kit setup in favor of a rich sound that manages to be both primordial and futuristic. And then there are Leontiou’s vocals — undeniably the pièce de résistance. His tenor is quiet and sweet, almost hushed. On the band’s album he resembles, at times, a retiring Jason Mraz and his lower register is sometimes lost in the live show. But when Leontiou soars into his seraphic falsetto, the energy of the entire song lifts with his voice.
Perfect example: The song “Chocolate,” with its entreating chorus, “Can I have your attention please, we’re like chocolate in the sun. And in this heat, we are melting into everyone,” sung in Leontiou’s gorgeous upper register, had the crowd cheering. Likewise, a performance of the popular, heart-on-sleeve radio hit, “Kandi,” received a roar of approval — surprisingly from the guys as well as the women.
But returning to the question of introspection: Why it works for One eskimO Reason Number 2) Because the group’s songs (written by Leontiou) are introspective. They’re about emotions, but also about fantasy, escape, space and, really, who knows what else? Leontiou’s is a beautiful mind and this band is more than just a musical outlet, it’s a multi-media project based on the singer’s sometimes complex vision. On screens at either side of the stage, a cartoon ran throughout the set, depicting the adventures of the band’s namesake — a sweet little eskimo character in a fuzzy white hood. The eskimo ventures to the depths of the ocean and the darkest heart of the forest. He encounters fish, stars, dangerous monsters and a pretty girl in a feather headdress. The songs seem to correlate with the action onscreen, from fearsome to fearless.
The band ended its performance with a leave-it-all-on-the-stage rendition of “Amazing,” a breathless, anthemic tribute to hope and beauty that makes excellent use of Sefton’s horn — the horn serving as a butterflies-in-stomach response to Leontiou’s butterflies-in-stomach vocal.
Will touring with Franti put One eskimO in front of the right crowds? Will audiences be able to look beyond a speculative performance for the moments of rare beauty that the band achieves? Can this type of creativity survive the grind of touring and the harsher realities of the entertainment business? All of that remains to be seen. But here’s hoping.
Photos are from the Orange Peel show. Scroll down for an MP3 of “Kandi.”