"Lend Me Your Voice"
Nelson Music Room, Duke University, Durham
November 1, 2013
Premiering Friday, Nick Sanborn's "Lend Me Your Voice" program sought to highlight musicians who often occupy supporting roles. All seven players—Sanborn included and surrounded by guitarist William Tyler, bassist Bradley Cook and many others—have shifted at least some focus to their own pursuits, and the night offered promising glimpses of several upcoming works. But what made the show special was watching them support each other. Each is known for making the sort of subtle gestures—a crisp guitar lick here, a well-timed drum roll there—that can elevate a performance from solid to exceptional. Gathered together, they made almost every song feel like a rare treat, a fleeting pleasure never to be heard again.
Playing in the round at the center of Duke University's intimate Nelson Music Room, the musicians joined Sanborn one at a time. The Megafaun bassist offered rambling but insightful commentary on each artist's career before they played a song solo. They then joined whoever else was onstage and played one more. Once everyone had taken the stage, all six got a chance to front the whole group. These full-band renderings were by far the most compelling.
Nashville guitarist Tyler started with a wispy, unguarded performance of "Tears and Saints," a poignant solo piece from his first album. It was gripping, but his subsequent offerings were better. Backed by Sanborn on bass and Megafaun mate Brad Cook on guitar, Tyler turned in a version of "Cadillac Desert" that was full but delicate, punctuated by Sanborn's probing plucks and Cook's patient drone. "The Green Pastures," which he performed with the full ensemble, benefited mightily from moving pedal steel—courtesy of Field Report's Chris Porterfield—and the smooth cries of Amelia Meath and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig. Tyler's recordings—particularly on this year's Impossible Truth—build his driving patterns into rich but restrained orchestrations. Friday, he was able to pull that off live.
"Lend Me Your Voice" was defined and elevated by such moments. Megafaun drummer Joe Westerlund showed off some of the tunes he creates as Grandma Sparrow, tales from his own twisted fairy tale where he plays all of the characters. Solo, he was hilarious, skillfully smacking cymbals and skins as he interacted with pitch-shifted recordings of his voice. Away from the drum kit with everyone else backing him, he was able to accent his whimsy with more pronounced gestures and expressions.
There were many moments like this—Porterfield's sweeping "Pale Rider," Cook's weary recasting of the Megafaun song "Real Slow"—where one player's strengths were amplified by the kindred spirits surrounding them. These artists know well that collaborating is a two-way street, that you give it 100 percent whether you're leading the band or just holding down a steady groove. Friday night, there were no weak links, just seven talented people working apart and together.
The INDY caught a few essential moments on video, thanks to Dan Schram:
Thee Oh Sees, Whatever Brains
Krankies Coffee, Winston-Salem
October 31, 2013
About halfway through "I Come From the Mountain," just as Thee Oh Sees' tenacious groove reached a fever pitch that wouldn't break for another hour, two crowd-surfers met in the middle of the room. One of the dudes climbed on top of the other, grabbing his comrade by the shirt and shaking him with blind elation. It lasted only a moment, as their combined weight soon brought them crashing to the ground (happily without injury), but it got after what makes this San Francisco foursome so engaging: Their ferocity never necessitates brutality.
On Halloween night in Winston-Salem, they whipped a packed Krankies into frenzy. Second guitarist Petey Dammit stoked the engines with sharp fills and unstoppable bass lines as Mike Shoun hit snares and toms with the efficiency of pistons. But Thee Oh Sees were elevated most by their frontman: John Dwyer's crazed guitar melodies, delivered on a flashy clear-body SG, accented and instigated the group's unstoppable pulse, flitting from krautrock vigor to psych-surf flare, while his buds held the middle ground. His presence—along with precise harmonies from keyboardist Brigid Dawson—allowed them to tear through variations of the same infectious rhythm. The possibilities seemed infinite.
Word began to spread through the throngs of bluegrass fans across downtown Raleigh early Saturday afternoon that plans were afoot for a 2 p.m. "Banjo Flash Mob" at the Sir Walter Raleigh statue in front of the Convention Center. This was high comedy, for anyone attending this week's World of Bluegrass: If you were there, you know that the whole thing was a five-day-long Banjo Flash Mob.
From quiet beginnings on Tuesday—just a couple dozen people dotted the pews of the Long View Center for a fest-opening 6 p.m. slot by spirited Austin quartet Wood & Wire—World of Bluegrass gradually gathered steam as the week progressed before finally blowing its top on Saturday. Masses of grass-goers stretched across downtown, from Red Hat Amphitheater and across City Plaza up Fayetteville Street to the north-end stage at Hargett and Wilmington.
If you started at 11 a.m., as I did, and bluegrassed to your heart's content until fireworks expoded over Red Hat at the conclusion of the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell/Steep Canyon Rangers set at 11 p.m., you could have caught more than a dozen quality acts in all manner of venues, from plazas to theaters to ballrooms to hallways. Many fans stayed out long past the fireworks, as the Bluegrass Ramble continued in downtown nightclubs and late-night jams stretched toward dawn in hotel corridors.
A few standout memories, then:
1. Prophets and Messengers of Fayetteville Street
Walking north along Fayetteville's festival booths in the noon hour, I passed by a self-styled street evangelist engaged in full rant with a sign that read "Fear God" on one side and "Stop Sinning" on the other. Turning the corner to the Martin Street stage, I was saved by the sounds of the Iron Mountain Messengers, whose splendid cover of the Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Cornbread and Butterbeans" was followed by leader Charles Pettee's wise endorsement that the Chocolate Drops "should be at IBMA next year." The Messengers—whose members spanned generations from high school to retirement age—proceeded with a song expressing their "outright disgust" at the environmentally ruinous practice of mountaintop removal. Sing out!
2. Rowan's Rogue Band of Misfits
Peter Rowan could have taken the stage at the Convention Center ballroom for his 2:40 p.m. set on his own; he was billed just as "Peter Rowan" and is fully capable of commanding attention as a solo act. Instead he brought aboard a crew of eight backing players, a charming assortment of ringers (including fiddler Michael Cleveland) and lesser-known players both old and young.
Toward the end of the set, he introduced Charli Robertson, who had been hiding behind Rowan while singing background and playing fiddle for most of the set. A member of the group Flatt Lonesome (who I'd caught briefly at City Plaza a couple hours earlier), Robertson switched to acoustic guitar and performed a stunning number called "The Man Who Made My Mama Cry" that brought to mind the finest early efforts of Iris DeMent. Kudos to Rowan for sharing his spotlight; he's proving to be an ideal elder statesman for bluegrass after the passing of icons such as Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs.
3. The Crowning Concerto
Following Rowan on the Convention Center stage, North Carolina-via-Switzerland’s Kruger Brothers—Jens and Uwe Kruger on banjo and guitar, respectively, plus bassist Joel Landsberg—brought forth their ambitous "Appalachian Concerto," accompanied by Chicago’s Kontras Quartet. Commissioned by the Ashe County Arts Council and first performed at Merlefest in 2011, the Concerto is a remarkable and beautiful 30-minute composition, a brilliant blend of bluegrass and classical realms.
Jens Kruger noted at the outset that the performance "may be the first classical event at the IBMA ever." Whether or not that was the case, bridging the gap does have its challenges, as evidenced by the audience breaking out into a standing ovation after the piece's first movement. Jens smiled and noted kindly, "You were not supposed to clap," acknowledging that applause in classical concerts generally holds until the piece's full conclusion. It was all in good cheer, and you could hardly blame the crowd for their spontaneous expression of gratitude for such wondrous music.
A brief encore was nearly the equal of the Concerto itself—and not even for the surprise cameo by Steve Martin on a well-chosen clawhammer instrumental, but rather mainly for a transformative cover of Sting's "Fields of Gold" that Uwe Kruger slyly introduced as "an English folk song" before he sang it. In the hands of Kruger and Kontras, indeed, it became an English folk song. Uwe then brought the show to a perfect conclusion by singing his heartfelt original song "Carolina in the Fall."
4. Chatham County's Line in the Sand
As most of the late-evening concertgoers gathered at Red Hat for the Martin/Brickell/Rangers blockbuster, hometown heroes Chatham County Line gave the World of Bluegrass its finest salute near the end of their set at City Plaza. Leader Dave Wilson explained that he'd gone downtown on Tuesday and took part in the Bluegrass Ramble, coming back amazed at what he was able to see just a bike ride away from his house. Inspired, he wrote a new song to capture the moment.
And though Wilson announced from the stage before playing it that "this is the only time this song is ever going to be played," it's almost a civic obligation for Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane to have CCL bring it back next year as the city's unofficial World of Bluegrass theme song. Titled "Living in Raleigh Now," the tune traces the festival's journey from its Kentucky origins and through its stopover years in Nashville before finally arriving at its new home.
The final chorus:
What was born in Kentucky,
And moved off to Nashville,
Is living in Raleigh now.
If Saturday was any indication, expect the World of Bluegrass to be living in Raleigh for a long time to come.
Peter Blackstock is associate editor at INDY Week.
Cat's Cradle, Carrboro
Aug. 23, 2013
Friday at the Cat's Cradle, Mandolin Orange packed every square inch of the storied room with a body. Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz were celebrating the release of their third album and their first for Yep Roc Records, This Side of Jordan.
Walking into the Cradle early in the evening, there was an electricity in the air as many people bustled around to prepare for the doors to open early. In many ways, the event felt as though it was sponsored by the entire community of Carrboro. From local businesses like Steel String Brewery, who released House of Stone IPA earlier in the week, to Fifth Season Gardening Company, Carrboro Coffee Roasters, Carolina Brewery, Milltown and The Station, who provided free samples and catering for a pre-show jam by another Carrboro institution, The Big Fat Gap. It doesn't get really more hometown than that.
After an strong set by the South Carolina Broadcasters, Mandolin Orange took to the stage in front of a massive banner depicting the group's album cover, created by Anne Schroth of Greensboro's Red Canary. Everything seemed in perfect form before they even played one note. Surrounded by longtime bandmates and collaborators James Wallace, Jeff Crawford and Ryan Gustafson, the duo looked relaxed and confident as they gazed out into a sea of people.
And during this evening, as they worked through their new album and mixed in songs from their previous releases, something seemed different. Frantz's fiddle breaks seemed sharp and stronger, while Marlin fought his mandolin in hopes of squeezing out every last note during his solos. The crowd responded by singing along to many songs and cheering as though they weren't watching a folk show. A delightful surprise was that of local pedal steel player Nathan Golub joining the group on stage to add his flourishing touches live just as he had done on the album. Ryan Gustafson and frequent cohort Josh Moore also stepped out front to play new numbers from their upcoming solo efforts while backed by Mandolin Orange and company.
The evening hit its peak as the group encored with a tribute to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, "Black Muddy River," a song fitting Marlin's voice almost perfectly. And as the evening ended, the hot and packed space began to empty as people walked out with records, Plastic Flame prints and the band's own pint glasses. Backstage the group hugged and popped champagne to celebrate the evening.
Coming a long way in just a few years' time, the group seems poised to take their music to a wider, national audience. Outfitted with an impressive record label, management group and publicity team—and perhaps most importantly, a local community feverishly pushing them forward while embracing them as their own.
Below are a few clips from the evening's performance, "There Was a Time" and "Calvary." Also, Ryan Gustafson, who will be stepping further into the spotlight at next week's Hopscotch Music Festival with a set at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, debuted a new song, "Road to Heaven."
Superchunk, The Parting Gifts
Cat's Cradle, Carrboro
Aug. 24, 2013
The last few times that Superchunk played Cat's Cradle, the indie rock entrepreneurs picked openers that reinforced their unflagging vitality. Since 2009, surging local rock acts Hammer No More the Fingers and Gross Ghost got their chance to open for the Chapel Hill legends at the club they made famous, as did the nervy but propulsive pop duo Veelee and the rangy folk singer Ryan Gustafson. Performing with these young talents highlighted Superchunk's persistent knack for packing unabashed hooks and screwy guitar lines with triumphant energy. This made sense surrounding Majesty Shredding, a 2010 LP that found them confronting their 40s with gleeful defiance. They owned more gray hairs, and they were writing the checks for Merge Records, Durham's favorite success story, but that hadn't stripped them of their youthful verve.
Saturday, Superchunk played after The Parting Gifts, a sleek rock 'n' roll band that pairs Ettes frontwoman Lindsay "Coco" Hames with Asheville's Greg Cartwright. In this setting, Cartwright dug into songs like the romantically confused "Strange Disposition" with wounded swagger, balanced deftly by Hames' no-nonsense coos. The performances were straightforward, riding tasteful grooves and Cartwright's cutting guitar lines to satisfyingly familiar conclusions, but his simmering reflections made many of them quite powerful. As with those young upstarts, The Parting Gifts were a near-perfect pairing.
I Hate Music, Superchunk's 10th album, had been unveiled a few days before, and this was the celebration—though they also indulged in an intimate, release-day tune-up at Durham's Pinhook. The new LP is darker and more desperate than Majesty Shredding, staring down mortality and reckoning with the role music plays in a finite existence.
"I hate music, what is it worth?" Mac McCaughan cried during "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo," finding outrage more unhinged than what ended up on the smoother studio version. "Can't bring you back to this earth." The take was a little clunky. New bassist Jason Narducy—who recently stepped in for founding member Laura Ballance—fell out of synch with Jon Wurster's clobbering drums, a rare miscue from a duo that already display enviable chemistry.
A few of the set's early moments suffered from similar setbacks, and the fact that McCaughan couldn't keep his guitar in tune didn't help matters. But the resilient ensemble soon found their footing, ripping through serrated versions of I Hate Music standouts "Low F" and "Void" and more insistent older numbers, exemplified by an especially searing trip through the eternally manic "Precision Auto." McCaughan was as electric as ever, pinballing around the stage and trading scintillating riffs with fellow guitarist Jim Wilbur. The rhythms justified his vigor, driving forth with unyielding force.
For their penultimate song before a pair of encores, Superchunk revisited "Digging for Something," Majesty Shredding's aggressively wistful opener. The chugging riffs and slashing fills locked into a furious swell, bolstering McCaughan during the infectious hook. At the risk of stalling momentum, they elongated the slow-building bridge, allowing Mac to relate a story from their stagehand Laura King. She told them about a time in high school when her band was asked to open for Sebadoh, but her mom wouldn't let her go. It was a school night. And King gave what McCaughan estimated was the only fitting response: "Fuck you!" It's a struggle to keep going out as you get older, he admitted. Sometimes, the weariness and the overflowing responsibilities get the best of you. But "you still have to say 'fuck you,'" he preached to the crowd of willing disciples. "Say 'fuck you' to yourself."
Thus far, Superchunk have followed that dictum, pushing past age, past mortality's creeping shadow, past strings that just won't stay in tune. That, above all else, is what makes them one hell of a rock band.
The Curtains of Night
Chapel Hill Underground, Chapel Hill
Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013
In their prime, The Curtains of Night packed a wallop. The duo of guitarist Nora Rogers and drummer Lauren Fitzpatrick bred metal grandeur with the densest sludge, laying down some of the most intense and satisfying assaults the area has seen these past few years. They played for a while and released one LP—2008's billowing, thunderous Lost Houses—but they hung it up in 2010, each of them moving on to new projects.
They admitted that they hadn't practiced all that much, Rogers quipping that she'd learned a lot about "muscle memory," but their songs were remarkably solid given the circumstances. The crushing density that marked their old performances was somewhat diminished. This was likely to some degree a function of volume; Rogers' stack was a good bit smaller than the formidable set-up she utilized back then. But there also seemed to be a slight disconnect between the two players, like the time off had leeched a bit of their chemistry.
They both played their parts well, at least: Rogers unleashed burly, blustering riffs, concussive blows that cut quite deep. Her serrated howl was as sharp as ever, slicing through the onslaught with frightening ease. Fitzpatrick attacked her kit mercilessly, underpinning and counterpointing Rogers with her own fierce tumults.
During one bridge, Rogers ripped into an enormous riff that kept rising and expanding far beyond what you might expect from one guitar. In the past, Fitzpatrick might have ratcheted up her own part to match her partner. This time, she maintained the same propulsive rhythm, serving her purpose without magnifying Rogers' force.
The Curtains of Night were once one of the loudest and mightiest metal bands in the state. Last week, they proved that they could be again. At the end of the set, Rogers told the crowd that she didn't know when they would play again. Here's hoping there's no if involved.