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Lit up

San Francisco psych-folk combo Vetiver grows wilder



Like the tall, wild grass it's named for, the band Vetiver and its Virginia-born, North Carolina-schooled leader Andy Cabic may not be native to California, but like so many transplants, both are flourishing in the Golden State.

Here in San Francisco, the piercingly blue-eyed, long brown-haired singer-songwriter-guitarist sits, folded into an arm chair in the comfy flat he shares with Vetiver cellist Alissa Anderson. The space in the Richmond District -- the city's real Chinatown -- is crammed with vintage vinyl, books, art, a '60s and '70s patchwork collection of thrift-store furnishings and bric-a-brac. Cabic swishes a tea bag in a cup and plays rough mixes of NYC singer-songwriter Danielle Stech Homsy off his laptop.

The soft-spoken Southerner is increasingly at the center of an ever-expanding galaxy of neo-folkies. But he eschewed the recent New York Times fashion spread featuring his close friend and bandmate Devendra Banhart in bearded Cockettes-style drag chic -- and he skipped Banhart's recent gig playing the Chanel runway show in Paris for superfan Karl Lagerfeld. Nonetheless, Cabic turned up, pasted above the fold in a food-chain photo collage, in the splashy June 18 Times feature on his so-called freak-folk scene.

Like many in the experimental psych-folk circle, the man has a lot on his plate -- and perhaps unlike others, he has more than earned his place. The ex-bassist for SF psych-dub instrumental ensemble Tussle, Cabic has garnered some of his best reviews yet with the release of Vetiver's second full-length, To Find You Gone (DiCristina). And in addition to playing in Banhart's band, he recently started a label with Banhart, Gnomensong, which thus far has released acclaimed albums by Jana Hunter and Feathers this year.

Music and playing with friends is what Cabic enjoys; two old friends from his days in the Greensboro-based Simple Machines Records band Raymond Brake -- Brent Dunn from Charlotte and Sanders Trippe of Greensboro -- are now in Vetiver on bass and guitar, respectively, along with Espers' Otto Hauser on drums. But the songwriter, a University of North Carolina at Greensboro political science graduate and former college radio DJ, can't help but notice outside his rear Victorian window that "things like the garden have fallen to pieces. Don't even look back there. It's really depressing." He confesses he's as much a gardener as "a person who doesn't want to throw a lot of money into something. But more than money, it takes time, and I haven't been able to give it time. Yeah, I'm time-poor."

But you can't fault Cabic, who is busy writing his part in the world's latest psych-folk movement. This iteration hits a quieter, subtler, yet still radical note: The movement's not-quite-rabble-rousing politics of peaceful retreat revolve around a gentle turn inward toward a manifesto-free communal spirit and then outward toward forgotten artists like Vashti Bunyan, hippie aesthetics, and sonic experimentalists with borderless music collections.

Vetiver -- the most classically elegant of the bunch -- is much like its vegetable namesake, a grass found in sweltering India and Indonesia climes that has long been sought for its soothing and healing qualities as a sedative and stimulant. Cabic first caught a whiff of the grass's oil on a co-worker at a SF bookstore; he and named the band after it because its qualities were "in line with our music." He explains, "It's a base that things are added to. It's kind of tranquil for the most part and calming."

To Find Me Gone similarly taps an easygoing, eclectic vein of nouveau folk-rock. If Vetiver's 2004 self-titled debut on DiCristina arrived like a loose, louche, leisurely family-jam session between like-minded Bay Area pals (including Banhart, then-Mills College music student Joanna Newsom, Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval and My Bloody Valentine's Colm O'Ciosoig), then To Find Me Gone ventures out into previously uncharted territory. The recording transforming the lovely folk-pop sketches of last year's Between EP, beginning with the opening overture of a transformed, sweetly nostalgic "Been So Long," working up a sleepy stomp for "You May Be Blue," and rambling into the winsome, strings-dappled, Harry Nilsson-like rag, "Idle Ties."

The loping, dreamily melodic "I Know No Pardon" reminds you of Big Pink-era Band, but before you peg him too easily, Cabic throws ambient electronics and acoustic finger-picking over the haunting "Double." The album climaxes with the clinking, banjo-driven drone-turned-noise reverie "Red Lantern Girls," inspired by China's Boxer Rebellion belles.

"The Red Lantern Girls thought they had superhuman powers to combat the mandarins -- they could wave their fans and fires would start and they could pull down buildings with strings," Cabic says, recalling a book he read on the subject. "I found that really interesting that that could happen -- how your spiritualist tendencies could be used to dovetail with power politics."

To Find You Gone is poised at a similar magical moment, when the seemingly marginal hairy-fairy psych-folk kids suddenly discover their powers -- to mesmerize critics and hipsters, starlets and fashionistas alike. Catching Cabic's references to the "city by the Bay" and beer gardens scented by lemon trees in tracks like "Down at El Rio" -- named for the bar where the songwriter spun records in a popular Monday night free form DJ slot for four years -- one can read To Find Me Gone as a recording transitioning from one era to another.

At the same time, To Find You Gone's songs were conceived around the period of Vetiver's first album, which was recorded on a shoestring and resembled a homespun four-track sketch. It also evokes that same 2000s San Francisco psychedelic summery feel, one redolent of a post-dotcom Bohemia that inspired both musicians and the visual artists (Anderson, for instance, is a photographer and fashion designer).

Ironic that, as the album title goes, Cabic now often finds himself absent from his cozy living room. With a Vetiver US tour, a Japan jaunt with Banhart, recording in LA, and then a fall UK and European tour in the works, Cabic realizes he's often anywhere but here. "It kind of just dawned on me yesterday all that's happening," he muses as Kate and Anna McGarrigle harmonize in the background.

What does remain the same is that certain streamlined, steely yet ever so gentle beauty that streams from Vetiver through To Find Me Gone. It's a precious commodity, rarely embraced with such confidence in a community of talented SF musicians who, not so long ago, seemed to value bold performance-arty gestures like setting one's self ablaze or enacting on-stage fellatio more than a well-turned tune. "I like melody," Cabic says simply. "I like catchy melodies that aren't revealed outright. Y'know, slow-burning sorts of sounds."

Don't blame him then if that sound, like that tall grass, catches fire.

Vetiver will perform at 8pm July 11 at the Evening Muse. Call 707-376-3737 for details.