Saturday afternoon, they proved themselves capable. Brenda’s set was a small triumph, one of the more immediate of the eclectically jammy festival. There are two traits that seem consistent in memorable live acts: a preternatural tightness that grabs an audience and immediately indicates that they’re in sure hands, and a sense that the band have some sense of purpose. Rather suddenly, Brenda found the first this summer (their June CD-release was particularly rousing and revelatory), and they’ve nearly grasped the second.
The one genuinely galvanizing moment on the band’s debut, which is unfocused but infectiously hooky (its problems are obliterated on stage these days) comes during “Shai Li Lai,” when Loring sings “Never gonna leave/Just pay your dues/And don’t try,” the last word drawn out with funny, slightly contemptuous irony. It portrays the dilemma of the proverbially overlooked and/or underachieving Portland band, and with biting wit, but it needn’t read as an in-joke. It’s exactly the sort of revealingly personal yet universal moment the band should chase, as that seems to be what most great bands are made of. Brenda owned that moment and others on Saturday.
While I was wandering around after their set, eating $3 all-natural hot dogs and watching Jeff Tweedy sit atop and then collapse into a charity dunk tank, Brenda met with an agent from High Road Touring (whom Kennedy has been in touch with on the band’s behalf), a major booking agency that deals with Wilco, Broken Social Scene, and bloggy upstarts like Girls. After being grilled on their resume, the group settled into a productive and relaxed chat with the agent, who gave some input as to what their road map should be (first step: buy a road map, and knock some venue doors down). Later, while I was smoking a cigarette with Larmon outside the museum, a stranger approached and said, “Hey, did you see Brenda?!”
After sunset, we all watched the beginning of Wilco’s set with 5000 others on a rolling field. Tweedy’s band established their new festival-friendly approach to live performance, turning hauntingly minimal gems like “Ashes of American Flags” into endless displays of each members’ (totally formidable) instrumental chops. I complained about “dad-rock”-era Wilco, as I’m wont to do and as I felt bad about doing while so thoroughly enjoying their festival, and Loring and I theorized about why the band ever took this turn. The plainly obvious answer was, it’s what the people want, though I argued the long-winded approach stopped the bleeding heart of all of Tweedy’s best songs. In basic agreement, Loring said exactly what you (well, I) would hope a guy in his position — writing songs for a band that suddenly has a shot and wants to take it — would say: “That’s the reason music exists, because people were in a desperate place or needed to be different,” to say something important and hopefully unique that had to be let out.
Probably sensing that his last comment could sound ungrateful toward his band’s most important benefactor, Loring reflected for a minute and said, with no hint of irony, “I am eternally grateful to Jeff Tweedy” for this opportunity. “I want him to come to Maine and stay at my house. I want to take him on a boat ride. I want to cook him dinner.”