Pillbox

A lukewarm performance

A night on the town with songwriting duo Dean and Britta playing original songs to 13 of Andy Warhol’s four-minute film portraits was not meant for wayward Carnegie Mellon students.

First, a Pittsburgh taxi takes 40 minutes longer than I thought possible in a capitalist society to arrive. Then, the cabbie pushes his Chevy gleefully down desolate Liberty Avenue and misses the downtown turn, assuring embarrassing lateness. Pitying glances from the gap-toothed yinzer taking tickets at the door, no time to go to the bathroom, to take in the sights of a crumbling but atmospheric downtown, or dry off from a Friday night downpour? Par for the course. Unfortunately, on this night, no dark, raucous rock show will anonymize your squeaking-wet-Pumas’ late arrival.

Songwriters Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips didn’t play to expectations, performing mostly subdued original songs on stage in front of the screen. They rarely breached a 3 a.m. whisper, so all late arrivals, belching, giggling, and seat-shifting could easily punctuate the night’s intimacy in the classy and cavernous Byham. The glow from the large projection of Warhol’s four-minute silent films last Friday also ensured anyone who couldn’t make it by 8 p.m. became part of the stark spectacle while shuffling to seats.

Jointly commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, the premier of 13 Most Beautiful Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests defined itself with unusual collaboration. Live sounds accompanied silent visual recordings. Marriage and music bound hip Phillips and professional Wareham. The rugged band performed on an elegant theatrical stage. And the 13 shorts culled for the show (Warhol made over 500) featured celebrities like Lou Reed and Edie Segwick looking too cool for school, but were only made poignant by the collection’s pensive unidentified subjects. The last short, a collaboration between the camera, a blonde, a toothbrush, and a mouthful of toothpaste, masterfully walked the line between sexy and disgusting.

Artists mixing media has been in vogue at least since Rabelais pined over feces in his 16th-century philosophical texts. Lazy-pop duo Dean and Britta came off impressively unconventional, though, in a show that could have seemed a whispy, pretentious, indulgent attempt to piggyback on the uber-iconic Warhol. Dean and Britta seemed comfortable in their skin, even when Dean’s guitar went out of tune during a sorority-blonde nobody’s coy four minutes of fame. Three decades of mid-level success has probably steeled the guy.

The duo did not try to outshine quintessentially cool Reed (in shades and ironically brandishing a corporate Coca-Cola during his four minute portrait), or Warhol’s other Factory acolytes on screen. Wareham — whose voice at times could easily be mistaken for Reed’s — contentedly recycled the same riffs and mid-tempo glissades that he has worn so well since the ’80s, first with unheralded alternative rock pseudo-legends Galaxie 500 and more notably with Luna in the ’90s.

Elder statesmen Wareham has found an apt counterpart — not just a backup singer — to nuance his melancholic and dreamy guitar solos in pleasant if unchallenging Phillips’ vocals and bass; the two met near Luna’s end in the late ’90s. She used her voice with intelligent restraint on the songs where she sang solo, as on Dean and Britta’s second full-length, 2007’s Back Numbers (Rounder Records, Pitchfork Rating: 6.7). The duo seemed utterly indifferent to the trends of the day and increasingly comfortable with their original material after years of relying on indie-crowd-pleasing covers. Interestingly, one of the more powerful moments of night — before the toothbrush babe — came when they cranked the noise during Reed’s portrait, homaging an art-punk sound that Reed largely invented with Warhol’s patronage.

On this night, the generally late-30s audience never stood, the first 10 rows remained oddly empty except for a few intrepid couples, and the applause only featured one typical-drunk-guy whoop. It was the scene of the 1990s growing up. That’s good news for a bipolar decade featuring depressing Nirvana lows and cheesy Spears highs that never really had a reason to be happy or sad about much at all. That’s bad news for tardy Carnegie Mellon millennials who didn’t realize their generational predecessors had become so mature and punctual.