When Courtney Kaiser and Benjamin Cartel met a few years ago and decided to start making beautiful music together (both on and off the stage), they probably didn’t anticipate having nights like this.
They play what has been described as “low-fi harmony-heavy song-driven bittersweet music,” and brought their show to Denver as part of a cross-country trek that started the new year in Seattle.
It is taking them and their Toyota Prius they call Gertie through the heart of the Midwest (with a visit to Indianapolis, Kaiser’s hometown), up the East Coast (with a couple of stops in his home state of New York, including Brooklyn, which they currently call home) and into the Deep South by the end of March.
KaiserCartel’s first official concert in the Mile High City (they did play the Monolith Festival last summer at Red Rocks, the glorious amphitheater 15 miles west of Denver) isn’t one they’ll likely remember. In fact, odds are they’d just as soon forget it.
Such is life on the road for a cute, thirty-something couple (he’s the tall one, a rugged, darker-haired version of Owen Wilson; she’s the petite one, with long, lustrous black locks and penetrating blue eyes) that so wants to be a union of one they jammed their last names together to form a group.
While male/female duos have been around since the days of Adam and Eve and Sonny and Cher, there has been a recent boost in popularity with such entertaining and powerful pop/rock pairings as Jack and Meg White, Mates of State, She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) and The Ting Tings.
KaiserCartel, performing together since 2005, has a quirky charm and a debut album (March Forth, released last June on bluhammock music) that’s chock full of lovely tunes, including some that could pass for dreamy lullabies.
They might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, though, trying to make the connection by presenting an unfamiliar audience with pretty harmonies, simple melodies and folky lyrics. Apparently, that’s not what a less-than-receptive local gathering at the Hi-Dive (emphasis on dive) wanted to hear while waiting to party on Super Bowl Eve with hometown favorite Dressy Bessy.
In fact, KaiserCartel had the distinction of being sandwiched between two Denver bands on this night, with the considerably less talented but far more enthusiastic B. Sous opening.
So this indie couple only dependent on each other had about 20 minutes to drag their instruments into place and conduct their own sound check in front of their would-be audience as the small room (capacity 285) began to fill up in anticipation of the main attraction. Kaiser, carrying around a toy suitcase with the phrase “I’m going to Grandma’s” on the front, emptied out a variety of stuffed animals she has nicknamed “The Crayons” at the foot of the stage, left, including a Snoopy doll that was wrapped around her microphone stand.
Cartel, seated at the drum set dressed in basic black, and Kaiser, wearing a printed dress over black tights and strumming an acoustic guitar, went from roadies to serious performers in a flash, kicking off the set with “Oh No,” the nifty mid-tempo number that also opens March Forth.
On “Dog Stars,” the versatile Cartel performed double duty, playing the xylophone while pounding the bass drum. The song is sparse lyrically but rises to a stunning climax on the album with techniques they describe as “frothing strings” and “intergalactic keyboard exploration” by producer Matt Hales (aka Aqualung).
Unfortunately, without the use of all that equipment in their live performance (they already have enough to haul around), the tune didn’t quite make the same impression.
But the patient partners forged ahead before showing some initial signs of frustration on the set’s sixth song. Cartel took over the lead vocals and acoustic guitar while Kaiser switched over to the harmonium, an instrument that combines the look and sounds of an organ and accordion. In introducing the introspective ballad “Inside Out,” Cartel humbly said to the audience, “We really need your concentration for this song.”
They didn’t exactly get it. During the chorus, trading lines while playing the part of hesitant lovers still hiding their true feelings, he and she might as well have been reprimanding the uncooperative noisemakers:
“Have you figured it out?/Do you have a clue/
Still got a lot of growing up,
still got a lot of owning up
before we take this any further.”
By the time Cartel sang, “And it feels all right,” it felt like anything but that.
Nearing the end of their forty-minute stress test, with the chattering crowd starting to drown out the couple’s minimal onstage banter, Cartel seemed on the verge of either giving in or giving up.
“You guys wanna hear another song?” he asked, almost rhetorically. Relieved to at least get a somewhat encouraging (but still halfhearted) response, the intimate set continued either through perseverance or quiet desperation.
The peppy pop of “Season Song,” (with Cartel whistling a happy tune for a change), finally seemed to get everyone’s attention.
They even showed their resilience by walking through the crowd for their closing number, “Shira,” apparently a common practice at most of their shows. Considering how things had gone down this night, this personal serenade might not have been the wisest of choices.
Yet Cartel and Kaiser maintained direct eye contact with selected members of the huddled masses, some enchanted, some perplexed, others totally disinterested. Needing only his guitar and their vibrant voices, they left with their dignity intact.
So the Hi-Dive was anything but a high point for this tenacious twosome who won’t let anything stand between them or their surnames. With a little more levity and playful energy to match their commitment and stick–to–itiveness, this merger of talented artists will eventually emerge.
• For music, tour dates, videos and more information about KaiserCartel, go to their
• Kaiser Cartel had a song on the MTV show Exiled, a song on Have You Heard?, a compilation album featured exclusively at Starbucks, and several of their songs have been licensed for Planet Green’s new show Alter Eco, a lifestyle and makeover series presented by Entourage’s Adrian Grenier.
• See the video of “Okay” from March Forth below.