Friday, April 2, 2010

MusicNow Recap

Overall I was really impressed with this year's MusicNow Festival. I say that like I've been to all of them (this was the fifth year of the festival) but, of course, this is my first year in the seats of the completely beautiful and acoustically amazing Memorial Hall. The festival did a good job of blending experimental and instrumental music (Colin Stetson, yMusic) with artists who get written about in Pitchfork (Joanna Newsom, St. Vincent, Justin Vernon, Robin Pecknold). That being said, and while the better-know artists did not disappoint, I was left wishing that there had been more of the crazy weird stuff.

The week started off with Robin Pecknold doing a captivating solo set of mostly new music. His voice sounded so good when he was singing that I was surprised whenever he spoke between songs that he sounded like a normal person. The set was intimate and intense, and perfect for the setting. He walked off to a standing ovation from the crowd, who were visibly disappointed when he did not come out for an encore.

Joanna Newsom rounded out the first night. I feel like so much has been written about her strange but captivating stage presence that I don't have too much to add except, yep, it's true. She has a strange but captivating stage presence. And the stage banter between her and her drummer (and the guitarist too, though he was less vocal) was amusing. My favorite part was when, after stopping the set to tune her harp yet again, she let us in on a joke that people tell about harpists. It was something like: we spend half our time tuning, and the other half playing out of tune. Classic. Oh, and the music was good too.

The second night started out with a short solo set by yMusic violist Nadia Sirota. The more interesting of the two pieces was somehow not in the program (was it added last minute? I have no idea) composed by Nico Muhly, a contemporary composer who also just happened to be at the same college at the same time as me. But it was really good, trust me. yMusic then came out as a full ensemble and played some really interesting instrumental pieces, including one piece by Annie Clark (of St. Vincent) which was commissioned specifically for that show.

St. Vincent came on next and ended up being much weirder than I thought they would be from their recordings. And I mean that in the best possible way. While the colored strobe lights they brought were at times a bit much, the show overall was entrancing. Once again I have to say that Memorial Hall is amazing. It's so pretty, and the acoustics are so good that I could hear Annie Clark tuning her electric guitar. Like, when it wasn't even going through the amp. From the balcony. That is some impressive stuff. Anyway, they were awesome and amazing and possibly my favorite headliner of the week.

The third and final day opened with a mind-blowing set by Colin Stetson. He plays bass saxophone (which is a HUGE instrument, like, wow, five feet tall?), saxophone, and clarinet. He played all of those instruments (one at a time) through the course of his set I mean, just wow. Who knew that you could get those sounds out of a bass sax? I was watching the man play and I still couldn't figure out how he had multiple melody lines going at once on one instrument, let alone how he managed to not pass out while blowing that hard for five minutes at a time without a break. That continuous breathing thing is amazing. I think his set may have been the highlight of the whole show for me. So thank you, Bryce Dessner (of the National, founder and director of this festival) for bringing this man to our fair city. I am a fan. Check him out.

Justin Vernon was up last, and was obviously the man everyone was there to see. Let me just pause for a moment to reflect on the copious amounts of plaid and beards that were visible in the audience on Thursday night. In a word: so much. So, so much. Everywhere. But I digress. I may be the only one, but I was let down by Vernon's set. He played with members of yMusic, Stetson, and both Bryce and his brother Aaron Dessner (also of the National), but instead of being intense and amazing like St. Vincent's set, it seemed like they were just sort of hanging out, playing some music. Justin seemed like some kid who hadn't quite planned what he was going to do ahead of time. There were a lot of covers, and the set just didn't seem to go anywhere or build at all. And, also, he has a great voice. Why does he insist on singing everything in falsetto? Hey, Justin, your natural range works way better. Just, you know, in case you wanted my opinion. The highlight of his performance, though, and a really amazing way to end the festival was his encore, when Justin came out by himself and picked out the really old guitar that had been sitting on a stand in the back (I believe he said that it was "as old as the hills") and sat near the edge of the stage with it. No amps, no microphone, just him, a guitar, a beautiful space, and a wonderful, heartfelt, intense version of "Skinny Love." If his whole set had been like that it may well have been one of the best things I've seen in a long time. But, alas, it was just one song.

Walking out Thursday night after that set I heard some boys gushing about how amazing the show was, and how it was the best show they've ever been to. They were maybe 19. It made me wish that the tickets for the festival were only sold in three day passes, so that they would have also seen the awesomeness that is Joanna Newsom and St. Vincent and yMusic instead of thinking that Bon Iver is the be all/end all of indie music. But maybe they were there the whole time, and they were talking about the festival as a whole. If that was the case, then I could take their comments at face value without feeling sorry for those kids. The festival was amazing, and I feel really lucky and proud to live in a city that has such a great event happen every year. Way to go, Bryce. Keep up the good work.

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