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Listening with Nick Sanborn 

When the Milwaukee-based, multitalented musician Nick Sanborn moved to Durham last fall, he wanted to be closer to at least one of his bands. A year earlier, he signed on with Megafaun, assisting the far-flung folk trio as they toured behind their fourth LP. He held down bass lines and allowed the core group to both stretch their palette and tighten their melodic focus.

While they were a well-oiled machine, the fuel soon dwindled. After three albums in as many years, Megafaun took a well-earned break last September. Sanborn was nearly 30, living in a new city and without a consistent musical gig for the first time in years. He took a job bussing tables and reckoned with his existence as a sideman—a gifted musician who had spent the previous decade helping others to realize their goals while working fitfully toward his own ambition.

"I started noticing how each group that I'd been playing with had affected me and changed everything from that point on," Sanborn recalls. "Even if it was just showing up to play bass on someone's record, I started to realize that those experiences were really starting to change who I was as a musician, refining it."

This weekend, Sanborn will explore this trajectory, enlisting friends to achieve a vision all his own. Presented by Duke Performances, "Lend Me Your Voice" will trace his connections to other musicians who have also spent long stretches as supporting players.

One by one, six collaborators will join Sanborn onstage. He'll narrate, explaining their art and its impact on his own. Megafaun's Brad Cook will go first, playing on his own before Sanborn joins him. Slowly, the ensemble will grow, allowing each player—save for Nick—a chance to front the group, highlighting talents that are sometimes overshadowed.

Those collaborators offer an astonishing array of capabilities. William Tyler wows with his solo guitar work, but he's also lent tasteful backing to bands like Lambchop and Silver Jews. Cook plays frequently with the folk-rock outfits Loamlands and Hiss Golden Messenger, while Megafaun drummer Joe Westerlund has recently toured with Califone and Mount Moriah. He doubles as Grandma Sparrow, a recording persona that twists childhood fairy tales into a disturbing romp.

Meanwhile, songwriter Chris Porterfield was attached to various folk-rock projects before he staked out his own weary, pensive confessions as Field Report. Amelia Meath and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig have served as backing vocalists for Canadian singer Feist, but they've been part of the trio Mountain Man for years. Meath also sings with Sanborn in the addictive electro duo Sylvan Esso.

"I was thinking about all the different people I've played with and all the different phases my musical career has gone through," Sanborn says of the show's conceit, enjoying the fall air on his Durham porch and sipping a beer that Meath has handed him. They're a couple, too.

"Somebody could come see a Megafaun show, and there's all four of us up there onstage, but to us, there's a way bigger arch," he explains. "I think musicians reflect on that a lot, but the average person understandably doesn't really think about that when they go to a show. All of us are affected by trying to help our friends."

Though the show is his brainchild, Nick is the only player who won't present material. Even as a bandleader, he still thinks like a sideman. He'll use the night simply to play with friends and favorites.

"My role in the show is more as the thing that brought it together and the example of what all these people are doing," he says. "I thought it would be really dumb if it was like, 'Here are all these people. And now we'll do one of my tunes.'"

DECIBULLY, "BLOOD WE BLEED"

[Decibully was Sanborn's first serious band. He played keyboards with the Milwaukee outfit until they dissolved in 2011. "Blood We Bleed" is an angsty offering, with grungy riffs supported by post-rock patterns. It appears on the group's self-titled swan song.]

My only music goals as a kid were to put out one record that was released domestically and to go on tour once. I thought that would be the pinnacle of awesomeness. And with Decibully, in the course of six months, I did both of those things.

Decibully was the band where I learned how to do it: It was all the first everythings. I was the youngest guy in the band, so I was kind of learning how to tour from all these guys who were one click older than me, which is not an easy thing to do when you're 20 and pretty drunk. Figuring out how to not be an asshole is kind of the biggest lesson you can learn. I think I'm still learning.

MEGAFAUN, "LAZY SUICIDE"

[The finale to Megafaun's 2007 debut, Bury the Square, "Lazy Suicide" is a twisted trip of rollicking banjo, elastic rhythms and feisty guitar licks that tells a story of burnout.]

The second Megafaun show ever was opening for Decibully at the Local 506—a show that no one was at, of course. They did three songs, like 10 or 15 minutes long. They closed with this one. We were all just sitting there with our mouths open because they were in such a weird, improv-y zone. And none of us knew what to expect. I'd known Brad for years at that point, but I had no idea that the band was really like that.

This whole record does some weird twisting and turning, and then this is the track where you're like, "This is a fucking band. What is the next thing they're going to do?" This is the track that leaves you most blown away. It takes you through all these different versions, and then it leaves you on this note.

WILLIAM TYLER, "HOTEL CATATONIA"

[This cut from Tyler's 2013 LP, Impossible Truth, balances brisk fingerpicking and expansive pedal steel. It's a beautiful tune that sums up his prowess as a player and composer.]

The reason you're drawn into his music is his lyrical writing and playing. You feel like you're hearing somebody tell a story. I make a lot of instrumental music myself, and that's always a goal for me: If I can make it about something very specific to me and have it totally emulate and bring out to me this one really specific thing, even if somebody else doesn't know that story, that will give them the framework to put their own story on. I think Willie does that better than almost anyone.

FIELD REPORT, "I AM NOT WAITING ANYMORE"

[Released last year on Field Report's self-titled debut, this determined ballad benefits from an ethereal arrangement and Porterfield's gravelly croon.]

I felt a real kinship with this song. In my mind, this was his ode to getting off his ass and stopping the kind of twentysomething drift that both me and—I'm guessing—him got into, realizing that there's a change that needed to happen in your life and then doing it. When I first heard him playing it, the idea of leaving Milwaukee was already burning in my brain. But I didn't know how to do it. I hadn't come to terms with it yet, and it took me a long time to do that.

MOUNTAIN MAN, "SOFT SKIN"

[Mountain Man pair Meath and Sauser-Monnig with Molly Erin. The trio's bewitching, vocal-driven folk is sparse but overwhelming. "Soft Skin" appears on their only LP, 2010's Made the Harbor.]

I played this really loud set of instrumental hip-hop to open for them. That's how I met Amelia. They just crushed me. Their show just devastated me—in a good way. They can still do that to me.

This is a record that is so unbelievably timeless. It's such a perfect capturing of these three women in this moment of their band, and it's perfectly delicate in the way that they are. It feels so raw. The recording feels as raw as the songs feel to me.

COLLECTIONS OF COLONIES OF BEES, "FLOCKS IV"

[From 2008's Birds, this complex slow-burner exemplifies Collections' subtle but insistent post-rock. Sanborn has played with the band since 2012.]

Some of my favorite people. They are in our little crew of weird Milwaukee musicians, which is really about 50 people, these same 50 dudes who have probably been exchanging the same 10 grand for the past 25 years.

I loved their first record, Customer. I'd moved there, and I was really into this record, and I was like, 'Oh yeah, those dudes just live here and are at shows. They're just around.' That was a new concept for me.

  • Nick Sanborn's "Lend Me Your Voice," a unique collaborative concert at Duke, tonight and Saturday.

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