Haim at The Fillmore, San Francisco, April 9, 2014
Are Haim a rock band? On the opening night of their headlining tour at the Fillmore, the first of two sold-out shows at the famed San Francisco venue, sisters Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim hit considerably harder and louder than their justly acclaimed debut album Days Are Gone: An early highlight of their set was an unhinged version of the old Fleetwood Mac chestnut “Oh Yeah,” a blues-rock rave-up far removed from the Rumours-era comparisons that keep getting thrown their way.
Or are Haim an R&B-schooled dance-pop band? Nearly every song in their 75-minute set sounded like a single, and the crowd responded by singing along with most of them: For “Forever,” their fans sang the final refrain before Danielle could even get to it. If they’d removed their guitars and live drums and replaced them with drum machines and more keyboards, Haim would’ve sounded much closer to their inspirations, TLC and Destiny’s Child, whose hair-flinging head movements they couldn’t help but cop throughout the set. Haim have lovely, luxurious hair, and should shampoo companies come calling, these sisters are ready.
Or are Haim actually an art band? Their convention-shunning rhythms most closely resemble Peter Gabriel albums from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and beneath their super-accessible tunes and DNA-enabled harmonies, Haim’s canny arrangements pack plenty of quirks for those willing to listen closely enough. And although Days Are Gone is as layered and as exacting as plenty of geeked-out marvels of ‘70s-studio craft, they turned most every cut inside out and put it back together again for a far more organic and dynamic live presentation. If they lacked the hair and hooks, their ingenuity would’ve been far more obvious.
The ultimate takeaway from Wednesday’s show was that Haim are ultimately a one-of-a-kind amalgamation of all of those kinds of acts, one that’s made more remarkable by their offhand gentility. The enjoyment they get from each other is obvious: No Oasis-style nasty competitive vibes here. The Haims smile. They kid each other. They compliment the audience. They take what they like from any genre they choose and they roll it together like it ain’t no thing because for them, it’s not. As Este put it in a prosaic speech about their San Fernando Valley home life, “All we do is jam.” It shows: They play as if they’ve been practicing together since departing the womb. The set started with “Falling,” as the threesome took the stage in shadows with equally skilled drummer, Dash Hutton, and additional keyboardist in tow. Danielle’s lead vocals were initially swallowed in the sound mix; of the three sisters, she has the softest, yet most nuanced voice. And, typical of Haim’s atypical nature, this frontwoman is the group’s least extroverted performer: Decked out in her trademark sleeveless motorcycle jacket, she was sometimes upstaged by her athletic younger sister Alana, who bounced around in her baggy white T-shirt and denim cut-offs, alternating between rhythm guitar, keyboards, and tom-toms, frequently in the same song; eldest sister Este, who stuck to bass, but often switched styles from funk to jazz, and took breaks from her strings to clutch her head with scenery-chewing melodrama and accentuate her midriff-bearing curves.
But there’s no denying Danielle can compete with either sibling whenever she takes a solo. On “My Song 5,” the ferocity of her fuzz tone was ramped to rattling extremes. Although the undeniable sunniness of their harmonies recalls a long list of southern California soft-rockers — and in particular the interplay of Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie — it’s when Danielle solos that Haim most closely resembles the experimental Lindsey Buckingham end of Fleetwood Mac: She can wail, and so she did so often.
Alana pointed out that Danielle had played the Fillmore without the others five years ago while supporting Jenny Lewis. This time, each sister shone. It was Este’s raging introductory verse of “Days Are Gone” that made most clear the anger that animates most Haim lyrics, if not always their delivery. Here, that anger was far more apparent, particularly when Alana aimed her parts of “Go Slow” to the crowd in profile while pounding her keyboard.
Any bitterness vanished for the encore, as Este made good on her earlier threat to bring their parents onstage for their family standard: a cover the mid-‘60s soul classic “Mustang Sally.” Haim thus became Rockinhaim, the charity-fair band the sisters shared with mother Donna and father Moti while they were still in school. “I’m freaking out but I’ll try to hold it together,” Mom gasped as she took the mike while Dad climbed behind the drum set. And although the result couldn’t hold a candle to timeless renditions by Mack Rice and Wilson Pickett, its familial charm couldn’t be denied.
Of course the crowd loved it. That’s the fun of Haim: Their transcendence is utterly casual.