I wrote recently in this blog that Anita Robinson is an unsung guitar heroine, and I've never been so sure of it as I was last week while watching her perform with Viva Voce in Brooklyn. Robinson is a gifted and unself-conscious lead guitarist who likes psychedelic sounds and the effects pedals needed to produce them, but who never overdoes it or hides behind her effects. And tracks from Viva Voce's new album, Rose City, showcase Robinson's skill at playing the kind of simple, elegant, keening and bending guitar lines that would make "Wonderful Tonight"-era Eric Clapton both jealous and ashamed at his clumsiness.
But Viva Voce is far more than Anita and her guitar. The band began as a duo, a creative partnership between Anita and husband Kevin Robinson, who is the kind of fearless performer capable of playing the guitar and drums at the same time without seeming obnoxious. The chemistry between Anita and Kevin seems to be the key to their previous records. In between the many guitar overdubs and oohing and aahing back up vocals and occasional old-school style funk bass line, they produce something on Lovers, Lead the Way!, The Heat Can Melt Your Brain, and Get Yr Blood Sucked Out so fun, so spontaneous, so vibrant, that you can't imagine how they could recreate it live. But recreate it live they did, and as a duo.
Leave it to the Robinsons to risk this and challenge themselves by deciding to quit their duohood, quite possibly for good. Viva Voce now includes Corinna Repp on guitar, drums, and theremin (yes, theremin!) and Evan Railton on drums and keyboard. Version 2.0 of Viva Voce is on the road in support of the new album, but you wouldn't know the recent additions were recent from hearing them play. The band played a tight, comfortable, set that was suffused with their own brand of slightly-bluesy, uninhibited, relaxed Portland indie cool. Their new songs are surprisingly somber, some moving at dirge-like tempos, with lyrics about exhaustion, homesickness, loss and futility. Where older Viva Voce sounds bright, hot, and radiates like a heat wave, Rose City is rainy, dark, moody, and lush, like its namesake.
But the band keeps their show light and energetic. In version 2.0 of Viva Voce, Kevin Robinson plays bass, and his warm, lively presence up front is felt, and provides a nice counterpoint to Anita's focused, intense guitar playing. [Sidenote: One can't help but notice this interesting role reversal -- here, a woman plays guitar, while a guy plays bass, which has long been unfairly pegged as an 'easy' instrument that girls play.] Corinna Repp helps to fill out the band's sound with rhythm guitar, percussion, drums, and yes, theremin solos. Evan Railton is a fine drummer, but I think his real contribution to this show was as a keyboardist -- new piano-driven tracks like "Midnight Sun", "The Slow Fade", and "Flora" wouldn't have worked without the sound of a brooding, forceful, "Let It Be" type keys.
The new Viva Voce only benefits from its new bandmembers. The group and its previous strengths -- its versatility, its familiarity with classic rock, its ability to take older sounds and make them seem new, -- are all enhanced. The same goes for the maintenance of the group's gender ratio: since their inception, Viva Voce has been proving, without ever discussing any sort of politics, that indie rock doesn't have to be dominated by whiny guys with acoustic guitars, and that rock in general doesn't need to be based on machismo. Viva Voce 2.0 functions seamlessly and shows that it is possible for men and women to get together and play music without the sort of off-putting sexist posturing and divisive rhetoric that seems to be audible in almost every style of popular music these days.