Poi Dog Pondering brings ever-evolving sound to Sebastiani Theatre
For the band Poi Dog Pondering, creativity has always been about openness, change and evolution.
And that hasn’t always been easy.
Fans fell in love with their languid, freewheeling, upbeat sound in the late 1980s and early ’90s, yet with just about every album, they veered in a different direction.
“Anything that you do in your life that’s a creative pursuit, you just keep exploring and you keep evolving,” said band founder Frank Orrall, who last year moved from his longtime home in Chicago to the town of Sonoma.
After the first album, he said, “I’ve literally gotten hate mail with each record we released.”
Because people loved what they heard, they wanted the Poi Dogs, as they’re affectionately known, to keep making the same music.
Poi Dog has gone from playing battered acoustic instruments on the street to highly sophisticated and deeply layered electronic music, without abandoning their roots. It’s hard to categorize their sound today, but Orrall has a hybrid term for it: “acoustronic.”
Finally, fans have accepted that Poi Dog will venture into uncharted territory, and they’ve come to appreciate that, Orrall said.
“People have grown to expect that we’re going to keep moving now,” he said.
After more than three decades of touring, Poi Dog will play their first show in Sonoma on Nov. 20 at the Sebastiani Theatre. They also play Nov. 18 and 19 in San Francisco at The Chapel.
Orrall grew up on Oahu, and Poi Dog started out in the mid-1980s as a group of friends who played around Waikiki.
The first Poi Dog albums were cassettes made in Orrall’s bedroom and sold on consignment in the Oahu record store where his sister worked.
Then Orrall and his mates went stateside and spent a year busking all over the U.S. Living on the tips tossed into their guitar cases, Orrall said, “we slept outdoors half the time, but it was a super bonding, forging experience.”
Among the early members of the band was Abra Moore, who had a successful solo career after her days with Poi Dog Pondering.
Poi Dog’s breakthrough came in 1990 with an album that had a title evoking Buddhism: “Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea.”
The lush arrangements, swooning lyrics and velvet textures of the album conveyed a rare sensuousness, with topics atypical of rock music.
The album’s first song, “Bury Me Deep,” is a thoughtful exploration of death, which Orrall wrote while still in his 20s.
“A lifetime of accomplishments of which the dirt knows none, only in death can one truly return,” it begins.
“Return the carrots, the apples and potatoes, the chickens, the cows, the fish and tomatoes. In one glorious swoop, let the deed be done, and bury me deep so that I can be one.”
Another song on that album has a line that became a bumper sticker: “If I should die in a car wreck, may I have Van Morrison on my tape deck.” (For those under 30, a tape deck was a device that allowed people to play cassettes of their favorite albums in their cars.)
The band spent the late 1980s and early ’90s in Austin, Texas, and their sound rapidly advanced.
While so many rock songs were about triumph and conquest, Poi Dog sang about life’s complications and the lessons that come from making mistakes.
Among their influences: King Sunny Ade and all sorts of other world music, Nick Drake, early ’80s electronic bands such as New Order, funk and dance music.
“I saw the Talking Heads film ‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984) with that beautiful big band,” Orrall said. That film inspired his vision for building Poi Dog into a powerhouse.
The eclectic band may not appeal to everyone, but if you like them and meet another Poi Dog fan, you can be pretty sure you’re going to be friends.
“Poi Dog Pondering has the unique ability to weave world beats with electronic elements while delivering meaningful and poetic lyrics,” said Jake More of Santa Rosa.
A percussionist, More played the berimbau, a single-stringed instrument, on the song “Shu Zulu Za” from Poi Dog’s 1995 album, “Pomegranate.”
“I’ve been a fan for as long as they’ve been around,” he said. “They are one of the few bands that forces me on to my feet to dance.”
Violinist Susan Voelz joined Poi Dog during their Austin years after the group opened a show for a band she was playing in with called the Seven Samurai with Alejandro Escovedo and Ronnie Lane.
“They (Poi Dog) saw me play the violin. And then they asked me if I wanted to play some fiddle” with them,” Voelz recalled.
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