The band was small, the room was small and the crowd was small. But with their country-tinged indie rock and their mellow attitude, Great Elk’s performance at Wildfire Lounge on Saturday night smoothly blended its name into the folky Ithaca music niche.
The vibe of the show was laid back, easygoing and mellow, with about 15 people silently taking in the music and enjoying their drinks as the band played on. Local musician Steve Gollnick — who performs both solo acts and with his band Hubcap — played for the first hour of the concert, handing the spotlight over to Great Elk — composed of Paul Basille, Patrick Hay, Adam Christgau, Jon Estes and Bryan Trenis — for the second half of the night.
Sitting alone in the spotlight with just an effects pedal and an electric guitar, Gollnick started the set with the sad tune, “Your Ghost,” with his straight and earnest voice. His song “Babysitters,” a story about a group of aggressive babysitters, showcased not only his raspy tenor and rhythmic guitar work, but his odd sense of humor. With stripped-down style reflective of the eclectic Ithaca music scene, he was wonderful to watch — at first.
His performance suited the location perfectly, but after half an hour, his act became tiresome. His lyrics were contemplative and sad, casting a gloomy mood over the room. And while his skilled fingers made for an interesting guitar performance, the songs all started to sound the same. If he had performed for less time and allowed Great Elk to go on earlier, it would have been more enjoyable.
Luckily, Buffalo-based Great Elk brought the mood back up with their first song, the bubbly and bouncing single “Bow Echo,” off their new self-titled album. The song showcased Basille’s solid voice and Hay’s fantastic guitar work, which showed training in indie rock and country slide. Combined, the two made for a soulful twang that married well with Jon Estes’ laconic bass lines and Christgau’s energetic percussion.
The band continued with song “Down in the Willow Garden,” which showcased Bryan Trenis on the keyboard and synthesizer. The song had a romantic and haunting air that sounded like wind whistling through trees, especially when Trenis started the song. The lingering melody sent the crowd into a hush for the first time that night and kept them quiet with three-part harmonies.
The boys had an aura of family about them. It made the show seem more like a family barbecue — just playing for friends on a Saturday night. The band seemed instantly comfortable with the concertgoers, and the ease with which they played made for an enjoyable experience.
The highlights of Great Elk’s set included the acoustic duet between Basille and Hay called “My Worst Nightmare,” which prominently featured Hay’s slide guitar skills for three minutes of rock perfection. The most pleasant surprise of the night, however, was when the band slowed down Bruce Springsteen’s hit “Dancing in the Dark” to a swaying lullaby. The rendition was fantastic and got the loudest applause from the audience.
However, there was an awkward transition to the end of the show, which the band described as a “three minute country party” on the song “Down and Out.” The set list was a pleasantly strange mash of indie rock and country that would have seemed out of place with any other band. But with their laid-back and ‘anything goes’ energy, Great Elk made it work.
All in all, the concert was a low-key success, with two solid hours of sedate indie rock and good-natured guys trying to find their way through the local music scene. While Steve Gollnick’s attempts to warm up the crowd left some audience members cold, Great Elk heated up the room with a more enjoyable second half. All in all, the concert was a decent way to spend a Saturday night, but it wasn’t the best show in town.