The art of live music

In a turbulent and fruitful arts year, one local act stood out

French Reform’s final performance, Duffy’s Tavern, April 26, 2014.

French Reform’s final performance, Duffy’s Tavern, April 26, 2014.

Photo by Noel Julian-Anker

This year has been a particularly busy one, and as this paper’s arts editor, I’ve had a lot of things weighing on my mind at one time or another—arts funding, local weirdos, craft beer, the health of family and friends, the consumption of much music and trying to make a little of my own. But as I reflect, I keep coming back to one local phenomenon that got my juices flowing every time I talked about it in 2014, and as I sit down to write, I can’t stop thinking of the band French Reform.

For those who aren’t familiar, French Reform was a five-piece—made up of a range of young and old players from the local scene—that leaned on noisy synthesizers and guitars to make fun, dancey indie-rock. I gushed over them plenty during the first third of 2014 as they were fast becoming not just my favorite local band, but my overall favorite band. Then, just as they seemed to be approaching critical mass; just as they were starting to drive local crowds ecstatic with energetic live shows; just as they were releasing what would be their final, impeccable EP (Let Them Eat Cake); and just a few weeks after they accepted their Chico Area Music Awards for Best Indie/Experimental Band and Best Local Act, they broke up.

At the time, I was pretty bummed, writing in this paper: “Most of the time, I am in favor of rock bands burning out over fading away, but if a band is actively stoking a roaring fire, I say let the mutha-fucka burn!” But the dudes had other plans, other projects to embark upon, and only so much time to give.

It takes a lot of time to create a great band, and French Reform had a strict practice ethic. According to the group, all ideas were welcome, as was all criticism, and every aspect—from song dynamics to stage presence—was considered and refined. After shows, the members would even exchange notes on what worked and what didn’t. It wasn’t an accident that they were so good. As it is with most great bands, the music was dynamically arranged, exhaustively rehearsed and perfected by experienced, talented musicians. Those musicians were then able to confidently play loose with the songs live, adding full emotional commitment and a feel for the environment to connect with the audience and make mere passive appreciation all but impossible.

But French Reform also had that other thing—that elusive “it” that made the band not just great, but special. It’s hard to pin down, but like all effective art, when the personalities and experience of the artists combine to form a unique vision, and all the sweat is put into the invention and the presentation of their ideas, then something new and exciting is brought into the world. My memory of their live shows are of visceral, transcendent moments that they created and shared with all of us.

The band debuted in 2012, and through the end of 2013 they put out a couple of solid singles and one really good EP that featured an absolutely perfect song (the sleepy, fuzzy, noisy title track, “Plus Minus Plus”), and they played some fun shows. But looking back now, all that pre-2014 activity and focused work was a precursor to the art they would eventually create.

I just saw French Reform twice in 2014, and I think that only enhanced my experience. I listen to a fair amount of local music, but for me, most local shows are just shows. And that’s great, especially in Chico where a sort of band-driven “show lifestyle” (“You going to the show tonight?”) has a long and fun history. But French Reform fit into a category outside of the usual local-show scene, a category that also has a rich, if sporadic, history in Chico. Like only a handful of other local bands that have come before—Vomit Launch, The Mother Hips, Deathstar, MaMuse—French Reform had a unique vision and personality and created live art on stage that captured the imagination.

I know that this could come across as an indictment of the many other local bands, but that’s not what I’m going for. The real point is simply that this was a special band, the type that doesn’t come around every day. Regrettably, French Reform probably wasn’t around long enough at the height of its powers to make the same historical impression as some of those other bands, so I just want to say for the record that in 2014, however briefly, we did experience something special.