On Sunday, December 18th,  Conspiracy of Venus  packed the Make Out Room, located in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. A female a cappella choir, CoV-as they are called by fans-specializes in clever arrangements of contemporary rock music.

Red light bulbs, silver streamers, and a sparkling disco ball give the venue the feel of a carnival celebration about to begin. Every time I see a show at the Make Out Room, I always half expect a troop of dancers with masks and whistles to swarm in and bemuse the expectant audience.

The evening’s event was Seaweed Sway’s Holiday Showcase. Seaweed Sway, founded by Jessie Woletz, promotes Bay Area musicians by organizing monthly showcases that take place at The Make Out Room and Amnesia. Woletz also compiles mixes of recordings released by these artists-the latest being a winter 2012 mix available at Seaweed Sway’s bandcamp site.

The set started at 7:30 pm sharp with an appropriately sober and heavyhearted arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep,”  followed by War’s groovy “Slipping Into Darkness.”  Having warmed up to the audience after the first two pieces, the choir’s energy level rose gradually, and so did the heat in the crowded room as the ladies covered Joni Mitchell, Bjork and The Pixies. Attention was fully fixed on the choir. The audience listened and did not chatter over the music, something any a cappella group singing in a venue with a long bar would rightfully fear.

Choir director Joyce McBride is a strong presence onstage, managing the ensemble’s energy and sometimes even arranging singers around the microphones mid song. McBride, who studied composition at Mills College, started the ensemble in 2007 after receiving encouragement from members of Conspiracy of Beards, CoV’s all-male counterpart. Despite not having any choral conducting experience before founding the choir, McBride has written arrangements that cleverly use the traditional a cappella format and push the envelope into the contemporary. The choir’s performance of her original piece “Wildwood”  was an example of this. It also refreshed the set consisting mostly of covers.

To close the show, Jamie Freedman took a lead melody solo over Tom Waits’s “Come On Up to the House”  that had the audience participating with claps throughout. Freedman’s powerhouse voice shone over the choir, which provided the musical accompaniment. The successful performance of this arrangement showcased the ensemble’s versatility over a wide range of musical textures.

“Performing with the Mother Hips at the Great American Music Hall and being part of the Pixies’ Dolittle album reinterpretation are the two events closest to my heart,”  says McBride while reminiscing on the choir’s history highlights. CoV plans to record a full-length album in 2013, and it should be quite the treat to hear high-quality recordings of the pieces heard at the holiday showcase.

Latecomers to the showcase were disappointed to find out that the choir performed first on the bill, but were still able to enjoy a musically satisfying evening nonetheless. CoV was followed by performances by Jascha, Ash Reiter and Foxtails Brigade.

A very tight all-male band backed lead singer Reiter, who strummed away on a red Airline guitar. The four-piece indie pop group, consisting of two guitars, keys and drums played a solid and entertaining set. Before closing, the band had a playful onstage debate, ending with Reiter’s declaration: “I won the debate, we get to do the song I wanted to do.” 

Foxtails Brigade brought an on-the-edge and sometimes homey feel to the night. The foursome’s alternative chamber sound is crafted through intricate instrumental parts on acoustic guitar, violin, standup bass and percussion instruments-including empty wine bottles and salad bowls.

While I wasn’t treated to a carnival celebration-as the kitschy décor would have me expect-the night was, instead, a carefully curated evening with a diverse range of musical acts, bringing new instrumentation and varied ways of interpreting music to every set.

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