The holy altar of the Winooski United Methodist Church proved to be the perfect setting for the three guitarists’ metaphysical musical mantras. Above: Steve Gunn.
BY JENNIFER KELLY / PHOTOS BY BRITTAIN SHORTER
Three guitar players — two known primarily for acid folk, a third a veteran of noisy alternative-nation skree — convened in a blue-lit church off the main drag in a scruffy-but-gentrifying Vermont town for a night, and it was magic.
Meg Baird started off, seated on a stool, cool and unmoving as she played her eerily beautiful acoustic tunes. No hint of the Heron Oblivion keener here, nor of the battering drums of Watery Love, she stuck largely to material from 2015’s Don’t Weigh Down the Light, limpid, lucid cascades of guitar coursing like water through the air waves, her clean, high voice soaring effortlessly towards the rafters. “I Don’t Mind” came first, folky jangle intact, but minus the spectral slide of the record. It was gorgeous anyway, its soft vocal melodies curving flute-y arcs in the air and closing in a whispered, “When the night reaches out, I will be there, I don’t mind, no I don’t mind.”
Baird dipped back further into the catalogue for agile, light-fingered “The Land Turned Over,” which intersperses bluegrass-y twang into its guitar architecture and a country warble into Baird’s phrasings. “Mosquito Hawks” wandered closest into rock, with its slow, baroque finger work, punctuated by booming chords and strident, dissonant runs, while “Don’t Weigh Down the Light,” was, as you might expect, luminous with swelling light, guitar notes dropping like rounded beads of water into the stillness, Baird’s voice soft but piercing, exactly the way you’d expect a shaft of moonlight to sound if it sounded at all.
Lee Ranaldo went next, also bringing an acoustic guitar but putting it to louder, more anarchic use. Loops, pedals and, in the first song, a bow, elicited squalls of thunder from a succession of unassuming wooden instruments. Close your eyes, and it might have been Sonic Youth. Ranaldo played songs from an album he’d just recorded with novelist Jonathan Lethem writing lyrics, so none of the material was familiar. The first cut, the one with the bowing and massed (and massive) overtones, was a Lou Reed-ish spoken word travelogue type of thing redolent of open highways and mind altering substances. “Let’s Start Again” felt more like conventional rock (the opening guitar bit reminded me of Neil Young’s “Old Man”), but it blossomed through looping and layering into a powerful, transforming racket. You wanted to check to make sure it was just one guitar still. (Though not always the same guitar. Ranaldo was the only one of the night to bring a rack of instruments and a guitar tech to keep them in tune.)
There were a couple of other new songs, one called “Circular” about the repetitiveness of daily life, another called “Electric Trim” with some more impressive feedback, and a composition called “Uncle Skeleton,” which moved from goofy country to blistering noise and, somewhere in there, broke out that “face bone is connected to the neck bone” ditty. Overall, the new material seemed a bit less indie rock, a little more sound experimental than his last solo album. I only wrote down R.E.M. once, and I had just jotted down Velvet Underground (bullshit reference, by the way, all it means is rock with some buzz around the guitars) when he closed with a cover of VU’s “Oceans.”
Steve Gunn closed with a low-key but wonderful set that seemed both effortless and really difficult. Only when you watch him do you realize how much he’s doing with his long elegant fingers, how quickly and precisely he moves them though complicated chord changes, bends and pull-offs. When you listen, it all sounds supremely laid back and day-dream-y, but as Yeats said about something entirely different, “we must labor to be beautiful.”
It was “Night Wander” right off the bat, Gunn executing the glittering runs of Television-like notes in between terse verses about black cats and nocturnal rambles. Gunn seemed to be in a contemplative mood, as he introduced “Old Strange” (from 2013’s Time Off) as a song he’d written when an old friend disappeared; he was just as lost now, he admitted, on the eve of the Trump inauguration. The song is a slow, drone-y blues, a remnant of days when Gunn was primarily known as a guitar picker, but it had an undercurrent of angst as he played, the sharp starts of guitar like yelps when someone pokes a bruise. “Milly’s Garden” may have also had a Trump-ish undertone. When I interviewed Gunn a couple of years ago, he explained that it was inspired by a religious neighbor who kind of freaked him out. The line, “Your faith is savage, and your mind is damaged, you’re halfway home,” resonates in an eerie way now. Two songs from the new album, Eyes on the Lines came after, “Ark,” breaking its chiming chords and murmured folk jams for some guitar shredding and even a little bit of wah, and “Park Bench Smile” with its spiraling, baroque guitar figures, the song that welcomes you in, then pins you there, eyes pin wheeling to the psychedelic patterns that you see.
Perhaps because he was in a church, Gunn got to reminiscing about the last show his father had attended before passing away, at what sounds like the chapel at First Unitarian Church in Philly. Gunn went over to say hi, and noticed his dad had a beer in his hand and asked how it felt to be drinking a beer in church for the first time. Mr. Gunn countered, “This is not my first time.” And with that, Gunn launched into “Wildwood,” a song at least partly about summers on the Jersey Shore, and sad and sweet and folky as the story he told.
I was a little disappointed that the three artists didn’t get a chance to jam together, as they did at other venues, certainly Chicago, later in the tour. But maybe the thing to remember is not that their show at a little church in a little town in Vermont shut down early, but that it happened at all.
Link to the concert promoter: https://www.facebook.com/WakingWindows/