OAKLAND — Loud distortion on an electric guitar can blur away imperfections in a performance, hiding mistakes and in some cases lack of ability. Ty Segall, known for his extensive use of guitar fuzz, probably felt a little exposed as he stood on stage with an acoustic guitar at the Starline Social Club in Oakland Tuesday night. But Segall’s acoustic trio made it clear to the sold-out crowd that his music needs no such deafening sonic concealment. In fact many of the SoCal rocker’s songs sounded more immediate and evocative in this unadorned state.
Dressed in a white denim jacket and jeans with his shaggy blonde locks, Segall took the stage with his Freedom Band guitarist, Emmett Kelly, and keyboardist Ben Boye. The trio tuned up and launched into “Talkin,’” from Segall’s self-titled 2017 album. Segall and Kelly’s acoustic guitars formed an intricate and highly textured groove, while Boye added chunky and propulsive electric piano. The trio’s stripped down sound offered musical and emotional nuance that is almost always lost at louder volumes. But Kelly’s guitar solo melted faces even without a wall of amplifiers.
Segall and Kelly created sumptuous and powerful vocal harmonies that filled the venue on songs like “Fanny Dog,” and “The Arms,” which was released on Segall’s most recent album, 2019’s Taste. Boye contributed nimble keyboard runs to the pair’s compelling vocals.
Segall and the band then seemed to return to their first song, “Talkin,’” for an extended jam that had Kelly playing a riff that sounded a lot like the bass line from Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” while Segall soloed over the top. Soon Segall and Kelly were producing complex interlocking rhythms by tapping on the bodies of their acoustic guitars and strumming the muted strings.
The first half of the set concluded with an epic version of “Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)” that began with Segall singing a capella and Boye offering responses to Segall from his electric piano. The song moved seamlessly between lush swathes of sound and galloping rhythms produced by the guitars. Eventually the jam became atonal and dissonant—almost like experimental jazz.
While the performance was mostly acoustic, the second half of the set featured a drum machine. Kelly also switched from guitar to acoustic bass. The band ran through a version of “Alta,” from Segall’s 2018 record Freedom’s Goblin, and “Emotional Mugger,” from his 2016 album of the same name. It’s a testament to the uniqueness of Segall’s craft that, even in their stripped-down state, the songs were immediately identifiable.
The trio played a haunting version of “Ghost,” from Segall’s 2012 album, Twins. The sparse arrangement emphasized the eerie vibe. “I don’t wanna be a ghost/ In California, near the coast/ The sun, it shines here/ And I am dying tonight,” he sang.
Segall has one of those voices, like Robert Plant or Janis Joplin, that is instantly recognizable. His vocals manage to sound sweet yet delivered with a sneer. The acoustic guitars and lower volumes allowed Segall a broader emotional range, which he deployed to great effect. Segall sounded positively enraptured as he sang “Rain,” from Freedom’s Goblin. Conversely, he sounded appropriately dazed during the set’s last song, “You’re the Doctor,” from Twins, as he sang, “There’s a problem in my brain.”
The trio left the small stage to thunderous applause, only to return moments later for an encore. The band clearly enjoyed playing a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat,” along with a medley that included snippets from Segall’s “And, Goodnight” and at least one verse from Neil Young’s 1977 murder ballad “Down By the River.” The acoustic trio’s show in Oakland was part of a weeklong tour of California culminating with a pair of shows at Fernwood Resort in Big Sur.
The evening began with an opening set from Segall’s longtime collaborator, Charles Moothart. Moothart plays drums in Segall’s current Freedom Band lineup, but the multi-instrumentalist also plays guitar and sings in the pair’s other harder rock projects, Fuzz and GØGGS.
Moothart sat onstage by himself, surrounded by musical equipment, and before beginning his set admitted that he’d never done a live solo show. The set consisted of musical loops which Moothart would layer one on top the next. The resulting melange consisted of bluesy guitar soloing, programmed beats, and Moothart’s understated vocals. Often releasing albums under the moniker CFM, Moothart performed songs from 2019’s Soundtrack to an Empty Room, including the album’s title track and “Black Cat.”