Poi Dog Pondering turned a saloon into a salon on this cold winter’s night. Heavy coats heaped across rows of chairs on the dance floor baffled the already warm tones the band created during a twenty-song set. Madison was one of only five stops on the acoustic quintet’s winter schedule, and leader Frank Orrall and company showed enthusiasm and focus born of the boundaries that come with a limited tour.
The song selection tapped into material from across Poi Dog’s seven-album catalogue, including versions of “Sandra At The Beach”, “Angelika Suspended” and “Rusted Weather”. The band’s musical range is in no small part a product of their geographic voyage: Chicago by way of Austin by way of Hawaii.
Five players may as well have been ten, especially with Dave Max Crawford in the lineup. Crawford’s agile jostling of accordion, trumpet, recorder and melodica — sometimes a couple of those within the same song — created a small band within a band. In any given measure, with no forewarning, he toggled the mood of a song from symphonic to surreal, from campfire to house fire.
For all of Poi Dog’s musical diversity, the band’s heart beats with a Polynesian pulse. Orrall’s compositions and lyrics are filled with aloha. Wearing a dressy maroon Hawaiian shirt, he switched off between playing his twelve-string, brushing percussion (on this night a snare drum while he foot-pedaled a tom-tom case for a bass), and strumming his ukulele.
The gorgeous grooves of “Everybody’s Trying” showcased the lush, tropical vibe. The song, like so many of Orrall’s compositions, is water in gentle motion. His lyrics are shallow on first blush, but when buoyed by his complex, liquid arrangements, they ask the listener to do some important work, like ponder life’s big questions. Are dreams real? Are you in love? Why?
The Poi Dog acoustic quintet’s intimate sound doesn’t just happen because they’ve unplugged. It happens because of the real and deep connection between the players, which shows in how they listen to one another in performance. The fact that most of them have been doing just that for two decades only increases the power of community they bring to the stage.
Guitarist/mandolinist Ted Cho sat on a stool throughout the show, often raising his head up from his frets in astonishment when he heard something new, something pleasing, from the music around him. Lead guitarist Dag Juhlin had Cho’s head bobbing during “Simple Song”, from the In Seed Comes Fruit album. Juhlin’s guitar work on this one was conversational, making the main points but not dominating. The song came toward the end of the night, but Juhlin’s vocal harmonies with Orrall were worth waiting for. The downside was that their late arrival begged the question of why they were so sparse earlier in the show.
After an extended, tender violin prelude from Susan Voelz, Orrall closed the show with a cover of Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic”, slowed down a half-beat from the original recording — a simple touch that made the song sound twice as urgent.