On this seasonable Friday night in December, Howlin Rain’s return to Los Angeles also marked the Bay-Area band’s debut at The Venice West, the newest entry into the city’s long history of famed rock clubs. The vintage-dressed venue bears a conspicuous vibe harkening back to the gritty, seaside neighborhood’s halcyon days when Jim Morrison haunted its backstreets and boulevards. The VW also has been rapidly stocking its upcoming calendar with jam-scene favorites. Few bands can mesmerize in such hippified locales better than Howlin Rain, as the quartet’s 90-minute trip through psych-rock revelries proved in hypnotic color and sound.
Singer and guitarist Ethan Miller remains the band’s center, crossing two Jacks- Panama and Kerouac- spouting modern Beat sensibilities and a smuggler’s wisdom under a weathered white lid. His adroit vocal work and hydra-like guitar, vacillating between spits of melodic storytelling, pitch-bending wails, and rhythmic girding, offset nicely the rapt and punctuating runs of new guitarist, and L.A. music vet, Jason Soda (Gospelbeach). Miller is a tactician of mood and method, and Howlin’s latest, The Dharma Wheel, provided a healthy slate of songs ideal for cerebral stretches into the stratosphere.
The foursome’s steady, heady set drew heavily from Wheel tracks, and did so leaning on the twin-guitar strength of Miller and Soda, in the absence of the album’s main source of counterpoint (the keyboard contributions of Adam MacDougall). Yet, they were no less provocative or brief, as the two extended their conversational playing into overdriven discussions, with pinwheels of radiant orange spinning against the brick wall backdrop. Nor were they without nuance, finding a respite on “Annabelle,” or entertaining the nearly-full audience with Miller’s tales of a Mexican lunch with a sci-fi scribe in Austin, and climaxing with a scintillating finale of “Rainbow Trout.”
There was no encore, and really no need for one. Howlin Rain said what they needed to say. A masked-up Miller retreated to the club’s dimly lit back corner; selling merch and snapping pics for fans. He seemed very pleased with the show, happy to be playing live again, and hopeful that Howlin Rain’s wheels, once again in motion will stay in motion.