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Friday, January 10, 2014

Live: Magnolia Electric Co., revisited in Durham

Posted by and on Fri, Jan 10, 2014 at 6:01 PM

Magnolia Electric Co. with Michael Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger
The Pinhook, Durham
Wednesday, Jan. 8

It’s hard to leave home sometimes, isn’t it? Especially during a week where the temperatures dipped and stayed at levels that meteorologists say might become a new area benchmark, and especially during a week when you’re still clinging to resolutions about drinking less and sleeping more, peeling yourself from the couch or extracting yourself from the easy chair can feel like real manual labor. At that point, you still haven’t left the house, either.

Michael Taylor, who lives in his Durham home with his wife and two kids, briefly acknowledged this mid-winter difficulty from the stage Wednesday night at The Pinhook. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Pinhook like this,” he said, pausing before his qualification, “on a Wednesday night.” Despite all those external factors of time and season, the Main Street room was uncomfortably but happily full, conditions that turned little-used corners of the room into the night’s necessary nests.

The crowd had gathered to send Taylor and the five musicians who used to call themselves Songs: Ohio and then Magnolia Electric Co. on their way for a four-show trek into Chicago. They’re calling the tour Songs: Molina—A Memorial Electric Company, in honor of Jason Molina, the band’s late leader who died almost a year ago after ceding a decade-long quarrel with alcoholism.

Taylor, who stepped into Molina’s very large and subtle role, sang most of the songs. The five men who once formed Molina’s musical backbone had flown into Durham from various corners of the country to rehearse for a few days. There was Pete Schreiner on bass and Jason Groth on guitar, both sporting their familiar curls. Mark Rice, straightfaced and clad in a bolo tie, played drums, while Mikey Kapinus returned to the keys. Hidden at stage right, Mike Brenner amplified the hurt of Molina’s revisited loneliness, his steel guitar sighing in the quiet moments and sometimes screaming during the more paroxysmal bits.

Given the circumstances, the ad hoc sextet made for a wonderful band. Taylor did not try to mimic Molina so much as channel him, folding the former frontman’s cadences and phrasings into his own peculiar tone. When Taylor sang the stormy “Farewell Transmission,” for instance, he walked some unseen boundary between anger and isolation, his voice stern but soft, too. The 13-song set (which you can hear in full here) ended with “John Henry Split My Heart,” the gentle-to-jarring anthem that serves as the soul of the album Magnolia Electric Co. The band moved wonderfully with Taylor, letting him lean deep into the phrases and dart back toward the top; they give him space, and he delivered these old songs with new, spirit-affirming enthusiasm.

But the night’s most rapturous moments came when one of the originals, drummer Mark Rice, would emerge from behind the kit and step to the front of the stage. That’s how the show started, after all, with a stirring and quiet “Whip-Poor-Will.” Before the song eased open, the crowd was all chatter; by the time Brenner finished his first steel ripples, you could hear your neighbor’s foot tap to the guitar's strum. That’s how the set peaked, too, albeit softly, with a take on “Leave the City” that was so tender and fragile it seemed to take the narrator’s heartbreak as a lifetime requisite.

Indeed, Molina’s music generally spoke of liminal sadness and regret, longing and encroaching shadows, making his music an apt counterpart for a show meant to bring closure to this music in light of his death. The band left any over-sentimentality offstage, then, or at the very least, in their own minds and in the words of Molina’s they sang. They had no need to recite the familiar morbid narratives, to say the typical things you hear at a graveside service, because it was preordained in the lyrics. Groth acknowledged that some of these songs were very hard to play and that it was an honor so many people had come to hear them. He made a point not to wallow in circumstances he could control. Taylor jocularly called Molina by his last name, suggesting a friend talking about a friend and not a living musician analyzing the ways of a dead peer. 

That same feeling permeated the crowd, which was reverent and attentive but not overly so. Toward the center of the lot, one man pumped one fist in the air in time with every rocky climax. Elsewhere, people silently mouthed the words to themselves. Others stood with their heads cocked in attention, perhaps hearing these songs and their engrained ghosts for the first time. The show felt as much like an endnote, then, as much as it did an introduction, or reintroduction, to a wonderful body of work—an incredible excuse or leaving any house on a cold Wednesday night in January. 

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