Report: 2011 MusicNOW Festival in Cincy

The Bryce
Dessner-curated festival May 13-15 featured My Brightest Diamond, Megafaun and other
avant-indie luminaries – plus Dessner’s own band The National to close things
out. Check the video, below.

 

By Steven Rosen

MusicNOW, the six-year-old Cincinnati festival curated by
Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the National, has a reputation for being on the
cusp of rock-oriented musical collaborations and experimentation.

 

It’s a reputation more known within the alternative-rock
community than the population at large, since it’s a relatively low-budget,
grass-roots event held in an old auditorium that holds at most 500 people. But
because Dessner – raised in Cincinnati, like the rest of the National – studied
guitar at Yale and is also in a rock-meets-New-Music chamber ensemble called
the Clogs and has worked with the likes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Kronos
Quartet, he commands enormous respect from peers. (The weekend before MusicNOW,
he was in London for a Reich tribute.) The respect is especially high within
the vibrant Brooklyn arts scene, where he now is based, and which sees itself
as a community – a collective, maybe – as much as a business.

 

In 2007, MusicNOW commissioned Sufjan Stevens to write
string-quartet arrangements for the music from his electronic album, Enjoy Your Rabbit. That worked well
enough it was eventually recorded, and now is being choreographed by New York
City Ballet.  Last year Robin Pecknold
came solo to try out new material for the Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues, just released this
May.

 

This year, Dessner was able to lure two important and gifted
acts – Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Durham, N.C.’s inventively
rootsy band Megafaun – to use MusicNOW as a showcase for new and wonderful
projects. And he also convinced the rest of the National – including twin
brother/fellow guitarist Aaron – to close the fest with a homecoming show at
the city’s massive, century-old Music Hall, home to the symphony orchestra and
opera company.

 

That can pack in more than 3,000. It didn’t sell out for the
National but did draw a large, energetic crowd, raising the fest’s local
profile. The band hadn’t played Cincinnati
since doing a free outdoor concert/rally during Barack Obama’s presidential
campaign, before the success of High
Violet.
So the local press treated the show as a triumphant homecoming.

 

***

 

Friday night opened with festival regular yMusic, a
classically oriented sextet, playing two short, lovely Minimalist numbers, the
second a MusicNow-commissioned composition by Arcade Fire’s adventurous
multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Perry, who was on hand to watch. It had
something to do with stethoscopes and heartbeats, a nice idea that didn’t
translate musically, but didn’t interfere with the piece’s overall appeal.

 

Worden then joined yMusic to perform new songs from an
upcoming album they have collaborated on – they’d only done  the material once before, at New York’s
Ecstatic Music Festival. Worden was in a good mood; she had brought her
not-yet-one-year-old son with her. From a room to the side, he gave a short cry
while she was on stage and her smile spoke almost as loudly as her voice.

 

And what a voice! A soprano who has studied opera, she
brings clarity and interpretative, dramatic nuance to her singing. Such songs
as “We Added It Up” and “Be Brave” had captivating lyrics, delivered in an
involving and transfixing way.

 

She’s also aware of music as performance art, occasionally
donning a mask and cap and sitting for instrumental passages while Jessica
Dessner – Bryce and Aaron’s sister – did interpretive dancing. The set’s finest
moment, when Worden reached as deeply into her experiences to create art as
Laurie Anderson might, came during the song “There’s a Rat.”

 

She began by telling about the experience of catching a
mouse in her new home in Detroit, then launched into a commanding lyric about
all the scary powers out there that might threaten her domesticity – from rats
to bankers. But she won’t let them. During the song, she wore an apron and
swept the stage floor with a broom. The result was riveting as feminist
statement and as song. She closed with a tender tribute to her son, “You’re
OK,” in which the ensemble rang bells.

 

Megafaun shared the stage with Fight the Big Bull, a roaring
Roanoke jazz band that combines the traditional and free approaches to their
music – like Duke Ellington meets John Zorn. There were frequently a dozen or
more people on stage, what with guest turns by the Dessners, Reed Perry,
Worden, Sharon Van Etten and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. (The latter, like
Megafaun, hails originally from Wisconsin – and has played with the band’s
members previously.)

 

They did selections from a work-in-progress, Sounds of the South. Commissioned by
Duke University, this Megafaun/Fight the Big Bull project (with a major assist
from Vernon) sometimes radically, sometimes tenderly reinterprets songs that
folklorist/musicologist Alan Lomax collected in the American Southeast and
released on Atlantic Records in 1961.

 

There will be an album and film next year of the new
project, but this was only the second public performance so far – the first was
last September at Duke. Since the material, thus, was unfamiliar, Megafaun’s
cheerfully polite multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook introduced the songs and
stories behind them to the audience.

 

Although it’s different and far more organic-sounding, this
may be the most inventive adaptive reuse of old spirituals and folk music since
Moby’s Play. The two combined groups
were capable of bringing an inexhaustible variety of coloration and approaches
to the material, with Fight the Bull roaring like Art Ensemble of Chicago (on
“Arkansas Traveler”) or providing elegiac accompaniment to its leader’s (Matt
White) Steve Cropper-style guitar on “Trials, Troubles and Tribulations.” The
band’s Reggie Pace every now and then took a dynamic trombone solo.

 

On a version of Vera Hall’s “Boll Weevil,” Megafaun used a
sample of her voice to direct their new version’s momentum. This mix of
energetic, unexpected arrangements, along with songs so firmly planted in
Americana and performed with obvious conviction, moved the audience. When the
singers formed a half-circle around Worden for an a cappella arrangement of “Go Tell Aunt Nancy,” clapping as she
danced a little jig, it felt like a mountain-community revival meeting.   It also served as a role model for the two
nights that followed.

 

***

 

The second night had the most esoteric and unfamiliar
line-up, which affected attendance. Memorial Hall looked maybe three-fifths
full at most. It started with a short set by electronic musician Tim Hecker.
Then vocalist/guitarist Little Scream (Laurel Springelmeyer), whose new, debut
album The Golden Record was given a
huge build-up by Dessner, appeared for a set strengthened by guest appearances
by other MusicNOW participants.

 

She was excited to be present among musicians she admired
and revealed a voice capable of moments of powerful interpretation, but some
elements of her set – especially her guitar playing – were overpowered by her
players and left her in the music’s wake. But taking a cue from Megafaun’s
show, she brought as many other performers on stage as possible for a lovely a cappella version of the gospel song
“Bright Morning Star.”

 

The night’s final set by
violinist/tape-loop-experimentalist/singer-songwriter Owen Pallett showcased
his very good songs, but also tested the limits of the venue. His light,
pleasant voice didn’t project well, and seemed to be fighting his overall sound
for attention. It was easy to lose interest.

 

***

 

The final night, at Music Hall, belonged to the National,
but Van Etten’s short opening rock set was tantalizing. Friendly and lacking
pretension, she played early while restless people were still arriving. But she
still managed to turn their heads with the haunting minor-key build-up of the
electrifying “Don’t Do It.” She also played a squeezebox for her ethereal and
fragile “Love More,” a ballad that Justin Vernon had covered at last year’s
MusicNOW. It’s conceivable Van Etten could be the next Patti Smith – she has
the goods.

 

Meanwhile, the National may already be the next R.E.M. That
occurred to this writer, after watching the dynamics of their set and listening
to his wife’s comparison. Lead singer/lyricist Matt Berninger, tall and
elegantly moody with his appealing Ian Curtis-like baritone voice and stylish
suit, seems to have caught some kind of rock ‘n’ roll zeitgeist with his
mysteriously allusive, sometimes-murmured lyrics, just as Michael Stipe did in
the early 1980s. Maybe better – did Stipe ever write a line as good as “I was
carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees?” (It’s from “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”)

 

The result is that Berninger elicits respect and
identification from his audience, but not hysteria. He’s liked for his
intelligence. Meanwhile, his phenomenal band – besides the Dessners on guitar
(co-songwriter Aaron also plays keyboards), it includes brothers Scott and
Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums – creates its own kind of “bloodbuzz.” The
music is sharp and rugged but never slapdash, and the band avoided falling prey
to soloing for its own sake.  (Two horn
players, using arrangements developed by Bryce Dessner and Padma Newsome,
provided some sweetening.)

 

 For this show, which
included some friendly stage banter among Berninger and the Dessners, the
singer showed leadership and growing confidence on stage, walking through the
crowd for the encore tune “Terrible Love” and pushing the microphone stand
around at other times. Such performed songs as “Lemonworld,” “Squalor
Victoria,” “Slow Show” and “Anyone’s Ghost” may resist easy interpretation, but
seem to encourage a deeper crowd response. As did show-stopper “Fake Empire,”
which became a political anthem – a metaphor for the rot of the Bush
administration – during the 2008 presidential campaign.

 

And sealing what probably will become a MusicNOW tradition,
the band and guests closed the show with an acoustic, semi-a cappella version of the stately “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” It
had a campfire-sing-along quality that connected it to the old gospel and folk
tunes Megafaun and Fight the Big Bull had done two nights earlier. It was
impressive to see the youthful audience respond to it like an anthem, singing
along to the “all the very best of us” part as if it was a knight’s vow to live
honorably in the future.

 

“We’ve never forgotten where we come from and it’s important
for us to he here,” Bryce Dessner told the hometown audience at one point. It
was important, too, for those who were there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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