Moon Duo / Phil Manley Life Coach Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver, BC, December 7

Moon Duo / Phil Manley Life Coach Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver, BC, December 7
It's doubtful many in the Biltmore Cabaret were prepared for a set of this magnitude. Sure, Phil Manley has been a busy guy over the past 20 odd years, having played in the Fucking Champs, Jonas Reinhardt, Oneida, and, most notably, Trans Am, and engineered the likes of Grass Widow, the Fresh & Onlys, and Wooden Shjips, yet he never quite entered the mainstream or indie buzz-stream.

Judging from his Life Coach performance, Manley seems like the kind of guy who likes to keep his head down and work, letting the chips fall where they may. Standing stoically over about 10 pedals, loops and other signal processors, he purposefully weaved his heavily layered guitar sound like an alchemist. He wasn't so much a virtuosic guitarist as a tastefully calculated producer, thoroughly engrossed in sound without a much care for image.

Manley's demeanour seemed to lighten when a guy in a hoodie and long hair slipped onstage about four tracks in and started playing with a couple of vintage Moog synthesizers. His synth work was perfectly incorporated into the driving '70s German progressive rock of Life Coach's sound, rounding out the thoroughly processed loops Manley was creating. This synthesist was later revealed to be Jeremy Schmidt of Black Mountain/Sinoia Caves fame, so it's no wonder why he was able to fit in so effortlessly.

However, the lynchpin of this set was undoubtedly drummer Jon Theodore. Noted for his work with Golden, Royal Trux and, most significantly, the Mars Volta, Theodore put on a most impressive display of kit devastation. He was dripping with sweat by the end of their first 10-minute-long jam, rarely taking a break or even slowing down through the ebb and flow of their jammy set.

San Francisco's Moon Duo, a project consisting of keyboardist Sanae Yamada and Wooden Shjips guitarist Ripley Johnson, oozed the feeling of the Bay Area from their sludgy wash of neo-psychedelic sound. Wasting no time in breaking into their recent album, Circles, they kicked off their set with the first three tracks from the Sacred Bones release in sequence.

Despite lacking King Khan as the aerobic cult instructor from its video, "Sleepwalker" set the tone for their performance. With a Roland sampler playing the role of a drum machine and Yamada performing simple droning melodies on Moogs, Johnson was able to hone in on his molten guitar solos and hypnotizing vocals. Johnson looked like a guru, with his shaggy hair and whitening beard of wisdom, closing his eyes when he sang his teachings into the mic. Yet, as heard in the title track from Circles, he can take his voice to a more lighthearted place, more in a summery sunshine pop vein than the deep psych dirge in which they seem most comfortable.

Unfortunately, following the mind-liquifying opening set from Life Coach, Moon Duo didn't come across as all that sonically diverse. Johnson's guitar sound wasn't quite as thick as Manley's, as he lacked his number of effects, and Johnson didn't play around with his quite as much anyway. With Yamada's long bangs nearly concealing her eyes, which added to her mystery, she didn't end up creating much magic on her side of the stage. She occasionally supported Johnson with sweet vocal harmonies and New York-style shimmies, but her performance didn't provide a great deal of excitement. As such, and without a drummer, their songs seemed to bleed into each other.

Still, Moon Duo drew listeners into their haze for a different reason. Johnson displayed determined guitar virtuosity, and his vocals well suited their mesmerizing sound, their overall feel more heroin than cocaine. In the right headspace, they'd probably be quite effective, but following up Life Coach was a daunting proposition that they weren't quite able to live up to.