Black Sheep and Little Deer
By Zach MannOctober 13, 2023
On Saturday, October 7, 2023, the South Pasadena Masonic Lodge #290 lent its auditorium to fans of experimental baroque pop music. Aside from colored lights and a merch table, the lodge was dressed up as itself, complete with eerie oil paintings of Masonic life and black-and-white photos of white men staring straight ahead. The lodge’s website even lists recent and upcoming “Illumination Lectures” on shamanism and Masonic magicians. It was a good choice by Sid the Cat, if the goal was to book a venue that combined the vibes of a high school dance, an AA meeting, and the academic pursuit of occult knowledge. My impression of Spellling’s music—a strange synthesis of darkwave post-punk and dreamy electro pop—suggested that, yes, maybe it was a perfect match.
The opening act, My Brightest Diamond, did nothing to counter the venue’s slouch toward the cultic. Singer-songwriter Shara Nova handed out paper lamb masks before performing her new single “Black Sheep” shrouded in a sheep-emblemed cloak. “South Pasadena is baaaaad,” she proclaimed between disembodied recordings of Sinéad O’Connor interviews. Nova crooned and played guitar solo to prerecorded music—what she called “doing karaoke” of her own songs. Despite her incredible voice, her set was more memorable for her eccentric stage personality, especially when she referred to the large painting on the wall, an awkward pastoral scene, as “the man.” The one exception was a karaoke rendition of her 2018 song “Another Chance,” maybe because it was the one time her amazing voice was unburdened by the aggressive riffs of her steel guitar.
Spellling was an entirely different experience. Instead of one person under white room lights, seven band members walked onto a stage flooded in greens and purples. Then bass, guitar, drums, backing vocals, and a full-size piano filled the room with sound. In lieu of banter, singer Chrystia Cabral let her music do the talking. Dressed like a dryad in a pagan ritual, she contorted both her body and voice, sliding between classic R & B registers and more ethereal tones. Backup vocalists Dharma Moon-Hunter and Toya Willock softened Cabral’s vocal variety and ecstatic dancing with steady harmonies and witchy arm gestures. Spellling has earned a reputation for her multigenre approach to pop music, and that mixed identity is evident even on the surface; the musicians, in black T-shirts, wouldn’t seem out of place at a hardcore punk show, while the three singers might have looked equally comfortable in either sequin dresses or faerie cosplay. They were a fascinating watch, if somewhat static and limited by space.
Despite the band’s occasional lack of energy onstage, the crowd responded happily. They were a diverse group, mostly between 20 and 30 years old, and evidence that 1990s fashion truly is back. Unsurprisingly, most of their enthusiasm roared in response to songs from Spellling’s critically acclaimed 2021 album The Turning Wheel. After a rendition of “Always,” for instance, shouts of “mother!” from the crowd changed Cabral’s trance-like stage presence into a big smile. And it only took a couple notes of “Boys at School” and “Little Deer” for everyone to reach a fever pitch. “Boys at School” was an especially good song live due the influx of rock and roll energy into Cabral’s moody vocals. Unfortunately, her vocals for “Little Deer” were drowned out by the volume of the instruments—a problem with the evening from the start, especially considering the vocal talents on display. It was too bad, considering that “Little Deer”—influenced by Frida Kahlo’s painting The Wounded Deer (1946) and including the refrain “Turn us back into the dark”—is the song that best matched the setting.
While the venue might not have been perfect for sound, it was appropriately hallowed.
Photo of Spellling onstage provided by contributor.
LARB Short Take live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.
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