On its website, Fishtank Ensemble introduces itself as a “musical Molotov cocktail,” a provocative statement which suggests that this band is comprised of daredevils. This branding, if not entirely deserved, at least conveys the group’s irreverent tendency to completely disregard stylistic boundaries. The four-member group’s musical genre can only be described as an erratic tour of Southern Europe: One song may draw inspiration from Turkish folk tunes, while the next is clearly inspired by French jazz. Other songs hail from Romanian, Balkan, Greek or gypsy musical tradition – or else some dizzying combination of that list. (Indeed, you would never guess that Fishtank Ensemble is actually from California.)
At its April 18 concert, held at Club Passim, a “listening room” music venue in Harvard Square, Fishtank Ensemble earnestly tried to present the audience with its best sides – each and every one of them. Its myriad styles subjected audience members to musical whiplash: no sooner was one groove established then an entirely different one replaced it.
Fishtank Ensemble delivered the first shock of the evening by starting off the night with a composition by Handel. The operatic piece gave lead singer Ursula Knudson an opportunity to display the extraordinary range and strength of her voice, which was ruined by over-amplification. The sound was simply too loud inside Club Passim’s small venue, which at maximum capacity fits only 125 people. The acoustics and overpowering sound system made Knudson’s beautiful singing borderline unpleasant.
Unfortunately, this overwhelming sound became a trend throughout the night: During each loud number, it became impossible to hear the person sitting beside you. While excessive noise at a rock concert is expected, the extreme volume did not fit the band or the venue. Within such an intimate performance space, the sound quickly overpowered the songs themselves.
While the overall concert experience was erratic, Fishtank Ensemble’s individual musical talents were evident throughout the set. Fabrice Martinez was nothing short of impressive with his violin, performing spirited and complex solos. The group’s full-bodied, jazz-inspired pieces were the best songs of the show, and a cover of John Davenport’s “Fever” (1956), performed only by bassist Djordje Stijepovic and Knudson, was magical. The deep sound of the bass combined with Knudson’s playful delivery was more than a little sexy, and enough to give anyone goosebumps.
Fishtank Ensemble’s own “Woman in Sin” (2010) was the best original song of the night. Smooth and jazzy, the piece transports listeners to a hot, sultry night in a Parisian cafe. The key to this number’s success is its ability to bring together all of the band’s best elements – from Knudson’s stunning vocals to the technical skills of the violinist, the guitarist and the bass player. Fishtank Ensemble has obviously had a lot of time to polish “Woman in Sin,” which was originally released four years ago as the titular song of the band’s third album. Perhaps this is what made the piece stand out as the most skillfully executed and balanced of the concert.
Sadly, the group’s attempts to banter with the crowd in between songs fell flat. Knudson is clearly beloved by Fishtank Ensemble’s fan base, and rightly so – in fact, each number that did not feature her seemed repetitive and incomplete. But she was surprisingly awkward between sets, often mumbling into the mic and chuckling for no apparent reason. She did make an effort, however, which is more than can be said of the other band members, all of whom remained stonily silent.
Fishtank Ensemble’s performance was quirky, offbeat and curious. Depending on the audience, these can be the band’s best – or worst – qualities. While it can be fun to sample this hipster-friendly smorgasbord of musical tastes, these fish are certainly not for every palate.