CONCERT: Shara Worden & ymusic, Megafaun/Fight The Big Bull/Justin Vernon/Sharon Van Etten at MusicNOW Festival May 13, 2011

Last Friday me and a friend made the short jaunt down to Cincinnati for the first night of their annual MusicNOW festival, featuring ymusic, Shara Worden, and a resurrected performance of “Sounds of the South” by Megafaun, Fight The Big Bull, Justin Vernon and Sharon Van Etten. For those who aren’t familiar with the festival, it’s curated every year by The National’s Bryce Dessner, and is dedicated to unique collaborations between various artists – and usually consists of new or original music, sometimes never even having been performed before. In fact, in introducing the night’s itinerary, Bryce said it best by saying, “nothing you hear tonight has been recorded and released, currently no-one can download any of it on mp3”. Hopefully that changes soon, because I cannot remember a more moving night of live music than what we were treated to that night.

To start off the evening we heard two pieces performed by the New York contemporary music ensemble ymusic. They performed a beautiful new composition by Judd Greenstein first – a moving contemporary work that hopefully will appear on a forthcoming ymusic record. Next they performed a new piece by Richard Reed Perry (of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre), which he introduced as “part 3 of 4 pieces amplifying the smallest/quietest gestures of the human body”, and described it as “for breath and for heartbeat” – a translation of each players breathing and heartbeats.” For the performance, three members of ymusic donned stethoscopes which they strapped to their own chests, so they could use their own heartbeats as their metronomes – resulting in three different tempos being followed by the pianists, while the other three players followed their own breathing patterns with strings, unmistakably evoking the sensation of deep breaths going in and out, in and out. Commissioned as MusicNOW’s annual Esme Kenney Commission, Perry described the piece as “the quietest piece he’s ever done”, noting that the band he usually plays with is not particularly known for its subtlety. The composition was both hypnotic and moving, and a remarkable centerpiece to the evening.

Once ymusic finished the Greenstein and Perry pieces, Shara Worden (the voice and songwriter of My Brightest Diamond and more recently, the Queen in The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love) came out to lead the sextet through a series of new songs she’d written specifically to be performed with them. Worden was slightly late taking the stage after trying to put down her new baby boy, whose cries would periodically punctuate her mother’s songs from backstage as they echoed down the halls of the small Memorial Hall theater. This felt more than appropriate, since there was a palpable sense throughout Worden’s new songs that she was thinking a good deal about motherhood and rearing a family. She opened with “We Added It Up” (see below), immediately putting her operatic voice to stunning use amid the ensemble’s gorgeous arranging. The song is remarkably restrained as it builds to the tentative refrain “Love binds the world forever and ever,” an interesting counter-sentiment to the chorus’s assertion that “we added up” to zero!” Following that was the first of three instrumentals written for Jessica Dessner to dance to ymusic’s accompaniment – during all three of which Worden donned a dark-eyed mask of an old woman who would either wistfully watch the young dancer perform or frantically write something down on parchment. Later in the evening Worden shared that she’d been “thinking a lot about stories”, and possibly about how we remember those stories and pass them along. These wordless instrumentals seemed a profound meditation on that very topic as the performer (Worden) assumed the role of the observer, while the graceful Jessica Dessner may have embodied some younger remembered version of the observer herself. Throughout the rest of the night, Worden addressed one song “to all the old ladies” (“she does not know her beauty grows with age”), another one to her new little boy (“you’re hand, so soft and sacred”) and one to herself (“Shara, get to work! Shara, this is going to hurt” be changed or be undone”), each one given even more resonance by the talented ymusic backing her beautiful voice. Simply put, these songs were breathtaking.

mp3: Shara Worden & ymusic – We Added It Up
from youtube rip

And that was just the first half of the night!

The second half was a presentation of “Sounds of the South” – a re-imagining of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s 1961 release of American southern field recordings, brought to life by Durham, NC’s Megafaun, who had been commissioned to arrange and perform the project by Duke University in 2010 (read a good rundown of it here). Joined by the Richmond jazz collective Fight The Big Bull, as well as Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Sharon Van Etten on featured vocals, the night boasted all the original performers to resurrect this gorgeous tribute to the music of the mid-century American south. Megafaun brought their unique blend of folk/bluegrass/jazz/avante guard/sound collage to the project, creating something both true to its source material while sounding entirely new at the same time. The songs were absolutely beautiful, wrapped up in layers upon layers of sounds from, well, the south; ranging from swaggering New Orleans horns to Kentucky bluegrass banjoes, from jazzy barroom piano to angelic cotton-field harmonies. Besides the incredible arrangements of these old-timey classics, the night showcased the fantastic talents of the amazing Sharon Van Etten and Justin Vernon. Van Etten would bound on and off the stage like some kind of pixie and absolutely slay the place with her heavenly pipes (see “Go Tell Aunt Nancy” below), while Justin Vernon would meander back and forth, looking more than comfortable up there in his baggy khakis and fisherman-hat, with his old Eau Claire, WI buddies (he used to play with the boys in Megafaun in the band DeYarmond Edison). ├é┬áVernon took the lead on several songs, including the smoldering gospel closer “I’m Gonna Sail like A Ship on the Ocean”, but one of the most memorable moments of the night was when both he and Van Etten took to the stage together and dueted on the haunting “Tribulations” (see video below).

I can’t even express how great a night it was, except to say that I can’t remember getting more chills down my spine in a single night of music than I did last Friday in Cincinnati. You can check out some videos I’ve culled from various fans across the internet below and see what I mean. Enjoy!

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