Sean Rowe and Les Bicylettes Blanches at Club Helsinki

Sean Rowe surprised me. A friend gave me his CD and I’ve played it at work, but I never took the time to relax and listen. I had heard enough to vaguely know I would enjoy Club Helsinki’s latest Monday night local showcase, which Sean Rowe was opening for, but I didn’t expect to be completely enthralled by his music. Headlining the show was a band called Les Bicyclettes Blanches, French for “the white bicycles” — apparently a nod to the bikes they had in Amsterdam in the 1960s. Although no one in the band is nearly old enough to have been around to witness the “free bicycles” firsthand, they are nonetheless inspired by the concept and thus from it draw their name.

Photo from artist’s Myspace page

In person Sean Rowe looks uncannily like actor Zach Galifianakis, which threw me a little, but he is gifted songwriter and a captivating performer. Sean’s unique voice is both smooth like good whiskey and a little scratchy around the edges (like bad whiskey), bearing a marked vulnerability. It gracefully arches out into the still air, while his songs are energized, weary, and sometimes broken. His songwriting is dark but reflects the struggles humans face, and Sean delivered a powerful solo performance. A highlight of his set for me was a stunning, brutally honest song called “American.” Sean has captured a stirring piece of humanity within it, one that is set to a simple melody which only serves to heighten the strength of the message that the song contains. If you are to listen to only one song of Sean’s, I recommend that it be that one.

Photo from artist’s Myspace page

After Sean was finished, closing his set with a ravishing Richard Thompson cover, Les Bicylettes Blanches took the stage. The band was a complete transition from Sean, both in manner and music, but played another set I found entertaining. Les Bicylettes Blanches falls somewhere between the B-52’s, Blondie, and French cafe music, and the band definitely has a unique sound — one that appears to be heavily influenced by the Riot Grrrl movement of the 90s. During the show at Helsinki a twisted psychedelic sound worked its way into the music at times, perhaps due to the influence being in Woodstock has had on the band, and there’s a definite grunge sound in the music as well. In fact, the band’s name is entirely misleading, and only a few songs were sung in French. The band also played some Rockabilly inspired songs, during which the musicians got into a nice rhythm together. Lead singer Magnolia seems to spit and vomit out the lyrics when she sings, sometimes abruptly so, sometimes in lengthy jumbled streams. Their grooves occasionally fell into ruts, but, except for a few jams when the musicians went off on a tangent that they seemed reluctant to reign in, I otherwise enjoyed their performance. If you go to see Les Biclettes Blanches, expect a slightly bizarre display: the band members dance and jump around on stage when they perform, and the majority of what they play aren’t exactly songs — rather, they’re experimental techno/pop/futuristic soundscapes.

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