App Review: Timbre Is the Classiest Way to Find Local Concerts

I have a feeling Timbre's going to live on my iPhone for a long time, if only because it's such a delight to use.

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Finding a concert in your vicinity these days ought to be simple, right? Just throw some words at a search engine, the name of your city, say, and a couple phrases like “local music” or “live events,” click around in your browser’s results, and bam, you’re on your way to see Springsteen and the E Streeters, They Might Be Giants or Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem as thunderously rendered by your local symphony orchestra.

And yet web-trawling for local events is also kind of a mess: a mix of half-baked, ad-choked aggregators. If you’re new to your area, as I was when I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan a few years ago, you have to poke around sites like Yelp or others until you’ve identified the go-to spots, some of whose acts only appear on the actual venue websites. Getting a handle on an average week’s music events can be a trick, especially if you’re near a big city (say Detroit) with a still-vibrant music scene (despite the city’s ongoing unpleasantries).

Wouldn’t it be nice to have all this stuff in a single, dependable nexus? A comprehensive repository from which you could see everything, national touring acts to local ones, without fuss or muss?

Mobile devices have been approaching this problem from different angles and with varying degrees of success for years. There used to be a popular app called Local Concerts, for instance, which got the job done but now seems to be missing in action. Today you’re liable to download something like Eventster, which tries to be all things to all people, cramming “nightlife, concerts, festivals, sports, theater,” and so forth into a basically functional, scrollable list with an alternative (if troublesomely crowded) map view. There’s also stuff like Thrillcall and Bandsintown Concerts, both of which offer somewhat improved interfaces, but only if you give them access to your Facebook profile — usually a deal-breaker for me, because who wants to open the gates to their private social network info before they’ve had a chance to test-drive the app?

Yesterday I got an email from investment firm Atlas Venture about something called Timbre, a free location-based music discovery app by Boston-based developer Intrepid Pursuits. With a drudging sense of obligation and faint-on-the-way-to-flatlining curiosity, I pulled it down and tapped the launch icon: a black-on-gray guitar pick inscribed with the letter “T” in the middle.

And then a surprise: Had I clicked the wrong icon? What were all these pretty names and elegant black shapes? Was that Los Lobos at the Meyer Theatre in Monroe? Was Yo La Tengo really playing tonight at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor? Why did everything make sense and work the way I’d always hoped a local concert-finder might? Could this really be the app?

Indeed: In fact Timbre may be the classiest iOS app I’ve ever used (it’s surely in my top five). Instead of single acts hogging a full page or a deluge of overlapping, balloon-style links sticking out of tiny maps like randomly fired arrows, Timbre offers a scrollable river of beautifully minimalist band names, each framed as narrow-font white text within solid black rectangles, decorative black lines extending ladder-like to either side, giving the whole thing the feel of combing through a flattened-out strand of DNA. Scroll the list and date information quietly emerges from the left-hand side in alternating shades of blue and red, listing the day of the week alongside the actual numeric date.

If you’re using an iPhone 5, Timbre manages to squeeze between 11 and 12 acts onscreen at once without ever actually feeling squeezed or clumsy — the rectangles are roughly as tall, height-wise, as the tips of your fingers, meaning you’ll never accidentally select the wrong listing. Click an act and you’ll slide over to another tastefully unadorned info screen that lists the performance venue, offers an instantly playable selection of songs by the group (culled from iTunes) and gives you two topside buttons: one to scan and purchase tickets to the event using SeatGeek (SeatGeek powers the entire app, in fact), another that’ll let you share information to a social network (Facebook, Twitter), send an email or just fire off a text.

If you want to tweak Timbre’s definition of “local,” the app lets you slide your finger left or right across a search radius cone to shift the aggregator in increments of one, five, 10, 25 and 50 miles, and if you’d rather not use the automatic local event finder, which taps your phone’s current location, there’s an optional search field to enter city names or zip codes, say you’re planning a trip. Speaking of non-local entertainment, Atlas Venture says Timbre’s been localized in 22 languages and it’s available in 36 countries, including Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, France, Germany and Japan.

In the “unnecessary but kind of cool anyway” feature department, Timbre includes a 55th Grammy Awards nominees link at top that lets you scroll through the artists and Grammy categories in similar fashion. Instead of events, the informational pages link to each artist’s website and let you listen to the nominated song/album or visit their website.

I have just two complaints, and I suspect the first is less a Timbre issue than a SeatGeek one: At least half the acts I clicked in my area conjured the ticket response “We’re sorry, but there are currently no tickets for this event.” I suspect some of that’s because the events in question were sold out, in which case it’d be helpful to see that instead of what amounts to an app shrug. But in a few instances, SeatGeek was just clueless, say about Bobby McFerrin, who’s coming to Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium in April, and for whom tickets are still readily available through the event web page.

Second, Timbre is still only as aware as SeatGeek (which is to say, inconsistently). It found, for instance, Yo La Tengo playing tonight via a local venue called The Ark, but has no idea, apparently, what Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House is: arguably the finest jazz joint in the area, a remarkably intimate setting (it’s in an actual house) where I’ve seen world-renowned performers like Gretchen Parlato. And if you’re looking for something ultra-local that includes cover or original bands playing the local bar or club circuit (say The Blind Pig in Ann Arbor), Timbre strikes out entirely. Again, it’s not really Timbre’s fault — it only knows what it knows courtesy SeatGeek — but a miracle app that’s comprehensive enough to cover all your local music bases it’s sadly not.

Even without a consistent route to ticket purchasing in the app itself, I have a feeling Timbre’s going to live on my iPhone for a long time, if only because it’s such a delight to use. Give me this paired with a comprehensive local music aggregation engine, refined ticket feedback and Android support, and I’d call it “mission accomplished.”