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Rachel Williams brings an artic blast to a warm Santa Cruz summer night with her airy folk singing

By Paul Davis

Local folk siren Rachel Williams has been transfixing audiences in recent months performing under the moniker Birds Fled From Me. With a crisp, ethereal air in her stunning voice, Williams' singing evokes the soaring, arctic heights of Björk, if the Icelandic enchantress took cues from the spare arrangements of Cat Power. Last Thursday at the Crepe Place, Williams performed for a rapt audience, layering loops of harmonizing vocals to hypnotic effect. Opening for touring Brooklynites Tall Firs, Williams threatened to steal the show from the Thurston Moore-approved indie rockers.Though she's been recording for years under the moniker Birds Fled From Me, Williams' live performances remain a bit rough around the edges--the guitar is quiet and halting, and songs were abandoned midstream when they didn't seem to work. In the casual setting of the Crepe Place, this added to Williams' charm and the mystique of her songs, as she ambled through a set of impressive originals, and an off-the-cuff Justin Timberlake cover, with an affecting joy and modesty. This isn't to suggest that Tall Firs put on an inferior performance. If anything, the East Coast three-piece won over a crowd primarily in attendance to catch Williams' set with a meditative batch of songs. Tall Firs' chiming guitar harmonics suggested Unwound, if the seminal Olympia indie rockers had cultivated a keener melodic sense. Not shockingly, considering that the band is signed to Sonic Youth majordomo Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label, Tall Firs' music bore a similarity to their boss' primary concern. While not earth-shatteringly innovative or challenging, Tall Firs effectively revisited and refreshed a well-established strain of indie rock. Rachel Williams did double-duty this week, appearing onstage Friday night with Santa Cruz psych rockers Sleepy Sun at the Blue Lagoon. This collective of young longbeards has become one of the town's most beloved bands in a very short period of time, laying down lumbering servings of heavy psychedelic freakadelia and dusted Northern Californian psych-folk. Williams' angelic voice weaves in-between a sublimely mind-rattling cacophony reminiscent of Santa Cruz psych-rock alumni Comets on Fire at their headiest. Considering the lineage of its sound, Sleepy Sun appropriately supported Howlin' Rain, the side-project of Comets on Fire's Ethan Miller. A rambling, pastoral folk-rock outfit, Howlin' Rain allows Miller to indulge his jones for Creedence, Neil Young and other kindred long-haired spirits. Among those in attendance, the consensus appeared to be that Sleepy Sun kept Miller's outfit on its toes with its fearsome set. If rapturous local buzz is any indication, Sleepy Sun might be the best bet of the next Santa Cruz band to break big.

From the other end of the Santa Cruz folk-rock spectrum emerges Harpin' Johnny, a local harmonica player best known for his work in the Larry Hosford Band. Harpin' Johnny boasts an impressive résumé, appearing alongside the likes of Rod Piazza, Lee Oskar, Charlie Musselwhite, the Harmony Grits and The Devil Makes Three. The harmonica dynamo steps to the forefront with his longtime band the Primadons Wednesday, July 23, for the Capitola Twilight Series at 6pm.

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