Sunday, May 22, 2011

A weekend of great music

Last weekend, I discovered one more of the many gems that Cincinnati has to offer, the MusicNow music festival. The local festival has been running for five years and is curated by The National's Bryce Dessner. The band hails from Cincinnati.

Past years have featured Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Joanna Newsom and many other amazing artists. This year was no different, with Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), Tim Hecker, Little Scream, Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy), Megafan, Sharon van Etten and The National themselves.

Megafaun, Fight the Big Bull, Justin Vernon - jonahogles

I skipped the first day to visit friends out of town, unfortunately missing Shara Worden and Richard Reed Parry. I was there the next day, though, at Memorial Hall, a beautiful little theater in Over-the-Rhine, anticipating seeing one of my new favorites, Little Scream, and Owen Pallett, an old favorite.

Waiting for a show to began, I saw someone familiar; a musician I saw perform at Rachael's Cafe in Bloomington opening for Cults. I went up and introduced myself. His name was Eric, he wasn't an often performer (though he was amazing that night). Just a little aside, it was kinda exciting to meet him. According to his girlfriend, I made his night!

Then the show started. First on was Tim Hecker, an electronic musician I hadn't heard of before. His sound is ambient, reminiscent of Brian Eno's solo work. Not something I could listen to over and over, but good to put on when you have work to do.

During intermission, a funny thing happened. A woman sent her pre-teen daughter to get Matt Berninger's (lead singer of The National) autograph. The girl came back to her seat, excited to have gotten his autograph, but confused at who he was, asking her mother, "Is he famous?" The answer, of course, is yes.

Next on was Little Scream, who I stumbled upon a few months ago after seeing a video for her song "The Heron and the Fox." Absolutely amazing song and amazing performance from her that night. Normally, when she tours, she is a fully solo act. However, one of the benefits of this festival is the collaborative nature of the thing, so she got some help from Bryce Dessner, Parry, van Etten and Pallett. The whole thing was quite amazing.

Last on was Pallett, who is also generally a solo artist. He was supported during this concert by two former band members from Les Mouches. He's a violin player who uses looping to create a fuller sound and it's incredible to watch live. He claimed to not being a particularly good looper, name-dropping tUnE-yArDs as one of the best, but I thought he was amazing. I was amazed at his ability to create different sounds using his violin, including percussive sounds by hitting the bow against the strings.

The whole thing ended with most of the festival's musicians performing an a capella version of an old traditional hymn, whose name escapes me at the moment. Richard Reed Parry was one of the main vocalists and has an absolutely incredible voice. Arcade Fire should probably bring him up front and off of bass more often.

The second night (well, my second night, the festival's third) was held next door at Music Hall, a larger, but equally beautiful venue. When I came in, a documentary on The National, filmed by Berninger's younger brother, Tom, was playing. I'm not sure if the entire film is available online, but snippets of it were used for the music video for "Terrible Love." Also before the show began, Aaron Dessner squeezed past me twice trying to get to the rest of the band, who were sitting near me...awesome!

The show started with Sharon van Etten, a newer artist that Bryce Dessner discovered after Justin Vernon covered one of her songs for last year's festival. His backing of her is fully deserved. Thoughtful, introspective lyrics, simple guitar, you kinda feel like you're reading into her mind listening to her. Based on her music, I somewhat expected someone fairly withdrawn and angry to be on stage, but she's warm and friendly with the audience.

Finally, the main attraction; The National! Despite the festival being the project of the band's guitarist, Bryce Dessner, this is the first time in the five years that they've performed at the festival. I had a hard time visualizing the type of show they would put on, given that their music is fairly low-key. I figured it would be a good show, but not particularly exciting...I was wrong.

First off, the band had a video backdrop and cameras placed around the stage. The feed from the video was mixed with pre-recorded footage, creating a real-time music video behind them. The way in which Berninger used his voice was interesting, too. On the band's records, you'll hear a distinctive baritone that permeates all of the songs. Live, however, he often would scream certain lyrics in a tone befitting a screamo musician, but well placed here.

During the second-to-last song, Berninger jumped into the audience, making his way up the aisle and into one of the lower balconies, leaving member of the audience to hold up the microphone chord to keep it from tripping anyone, or Berninger himself. It was fun to watch, a friend of mine told me he does it at the end of every show.

As the grand finale, most of the festival's participants, minus Tim Hecker (but he really isn't a singer) joined the band for an acoustive performance of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks." The entire audience joined in, truly incredible.

I've said it before, I'll say it again, I love living in this city. The music scene is incredible, and the presence of this festival just rounds out the amazingness put out of the Ohio Valley. I'll be eagerly anticipating the announcement of next year's line-up.

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