Yesterday, Jenny and I visited Alameda's Forbidden Island so I could check out Project: Pimento, a five-piece band featuring real-life biochemist "Dr. Robby Virus" on the theremin. That's right, the creepy-sounding electric musical device, the one immortalized in classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still and homages like Ed Wood, also serves a San Francisco-based lounge-exotica band.
We arrived early (way too early for Jenny's taste) and snagged the couch nearest the band. The venue was perfect: small, intimate, relaxed. I even had a chance to meet singer "Lola bombay" who delighted that we'd driven so far to see them. She and I chatted about our mutual amazement that Gene Roddenberry actually wrote lyrics to Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme. Thus her smile was all the sweeter when she sang that song in their first set.
Project: Pimento plays jazzy mid-century standards (and some quirky choices) that range from "Moon River" to "Barbarella," each drifting like clouds in the form of "Lola's" ethereal voice. And yet you can't imagine the cool effect of hearing those tunes backed by a device that looks like it came from a mad scientist's lab. Sitting close enough to alter the theremin's electromagnetic field, I was mesmerized by the sight of the doctor's hands weaving invisible strands of volume and pitch, watching him flick his fingers to create trilling vibratos.
The theramin is one of those devices that looks easy to play; it's just a wooden box with metal arms and an amplifier. But its artist must be able to pick out notes from three dimensions of empty space, without the aid of visual cues. The result of a theremin played well is eerie and beautiful, a sound that mixes sci-fi futurism and something more primordial: googie-music.
I've already picked up Project: Pimento's second album, "Space Age Love Sounds," and will likely grab their debut, "Magical Moods of the Theremin" later this summer. While the band sounds best in a dark tiki bar, I think they'll do well by the beach too.
Visit Project: Pimento's website: http://www.projectpimento.com
(Photo by Andrew Wood)