Shows I’ve Seen: American Acoustic Festival, Part II

Annnnnd, here is Part II! (See here for Part I)

One of the things I loved about living in Baltimore (take me back!) was being close enough to DC to commute down for events such as the American Acoustic Festival, while not actually having to live there 😉 No offense to my DC-based friends – it’s a beautiful city, but it’s hard to really feel at home when you’re forking over an unholy percentage of your paycheck for rent.

In addition to several nights of ticketed shows, the festival included free events that were open to the public. On Saturday, Mom and I attended two back-to-back workshops – “How to Play With Others” & “How to Sing With Others” – hosted by Chris Thile and featuring some the same musicians we saw the night before.

I thought watching these people play from the side balcony of the Kennedy Center was crazy, but seeing them from a mere 15 feet away in a small room was priceless. I sound like a credit card commercial, but I speak the truth. I hope to increase my interest rate in this blog.. har har har.

I knew the Kennedy Center was filming the workshops for their website, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the full-length, professional videos on YouTube. I’ve included them below.

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American Acoustic @ The Kennedy Center – Washington, DC on 6/25/16

How To Play With Others, hosted by Chris Thile and ft. the Punch Brothers

How To Sing With Others, hosted by Chris Thile and ft. Sarah Jarosz & Aoife O’Donovan

Instead of separating the workshops out too much, I’m just going to write what’s popping into my head, which is working in stream-of-consciousness mode at the moment.

  • I definitely developed a thing for Noam Pickelny, banjo player of the Punch Brothers. What can I say? I like ’em dark, handsome, and armed with a banjo. Is a 9 year age difference too much? I didn’t see a ring… Are you into unemployed women with beer guts who live with their parents and have a man-eating dog?

Okay, I think that was the only stream-of-consciousness thought I had, really, and now that that’s out there, I can focus on the finer details. By finer, I mean “Damn, he so fine.”

I promise, I’m stopping now.

Watching these workshops made me realize how much I miss playing music with people. When it works, there’s a tangible connection between the players, a weird sort of electricity that is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. These ladies and gents have “it.” All the memories of what I’d been taught while playing jazz in college came flooding back during this lecture, as I listened to them discuss how important it is to know your material well so that you can really focus on interacting and listening to each other during a performance.

My hang-up as a musician is that my nose is always in sheet music, chord charts, or lyrics. When you do that, you’re not interacting with the people around you, adjusting your playing to compliment them and vice versa. Even if you’re playing solo, there’s something missing. You’re using part of your brain to see what’s in front of you, when what you’re playing/singing should be second nature. Only then can you give your all to the music.

You can play the music proficiently, or you can play it at the caliber that gets you to the Kennedy Center. Listening, engaging, and musical talent/intuition is what makes the dynamic work. That seems like a “duh” sort of moment, but it’s something that really hit home when I watched the magic enfold right in front of me. Learning the music and working on the technical proficiency to play it belong in a practice room. Growing, developing, interpreting, and bringing the music to life evolve from being comfortable enough in your mastery of it to be able to focus solely on those elements within the dynamic of people you’re playing it with.

Maybe it’s just because I’m an awkward person, but I’ve found that the dynamic is easier to achieve when you’re with people you’re genuinely comfortable with outside of the musical realm. Chemistry is a weird thing, and comes in so many forms – friendship, romance, music, etc. You can have crazy musical chemistry with someone, but the idea of ever kissing them makes you want to hurl. (In all honesty, it’s better this way… otherwise some of our favorite duos would probably be defunct, if they aren’t already..)

With those same forms of chemistry come corresponding feelings of loneliness. I’ve been lonely for friends, for romance, and whatever else at times. After this show, I found myself achingly lonely for music.

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The other element I really took away from these workshops should also seem fairly obvious, but it’s something else that really differentiates the good from the great. The devil may be in the details, but so is perfection.

I said the gist of this before, but it’s easy, relatively speaking, to get up on stage and play/sing all the notes correctly. During the vocal workshop, Aoife and Sarah discussed their I’m With Her harmonies, and how they once realized that they had all started simultaneously phrasing the end of a line a different way than they had previously, without ever having discussed it ahead of time. As musicians, they’re so in-tune (pun intended) with each other that they’re able to detect small cues that enable them to better sing/play as a unit.

As a listener, you may not consciously hear these ladies finish a harmonized note a couple seconds apart. The ear can be surface-level if we let it, and it’s great to be able to focus on the whole instead of analyzing each part. Four years of music school, however, turned me into an analyzer. Hearing a crisp, clean end to a phrase where each singer wraps the line with the same rhythm and resonance sounds very different than when their timing is a bit off and the ending is unintentionally slurred. You may not be able to pinpoint why one sounds better than the other upon comparison, but it does.

Ending the note at the same time. Adjusting your voice to blend better with the people you’re singing with. Breathing in the right places. Paying attention to dynamics and subtle changes in rhythm. Listening, really listening, to what the other players are doing, and adjusting yourself accordingly. Pushing your ego aside and doing what is best for the music.

I’ve always been so wrapped up in playing the right notes that I forget to do these things. That’s probably a good part of the reason I’m not playing at the Kennedy Center, aside from possessing only a teensie fraction of the raw talent these people have.

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In summary..

I never really thought about the Punch Brother’s reason for positioning themselves around a single condenser microphone, but their explanation during this workshop really ties all of this together. The single-microphone technique forces them to self-mix. If Noam (*swoon*) plays a banjo solo, the rest of the group steps away from the microphone so that his instrument cuts through more prominently. If they need the fiddle melody to sound softer in the overall texture, Gabe has to step back. These are details that a listener might take for granted, but if they all played at the same level and position around the microphone for the entire show, something would be off. They would probably still sound good, but this practice forces them to really listen to each other, which makes them great.

Looking through YouTube, I originally wanted to post a video of Chris and Aoife singing her song “Porch Light,” which I’ll admit, made my eyes well up at the workshop. It’s in the “How To Sing With Others” video above, but for a separate performance, see here.

However, with everything I just talked about – listening, details, and chemistry – this video, despite the poor quality, really brings all the elements. Look at the way these people interact with each other, the genuine joy, the way that every detail – instrumental and vocal – clicks together. I posted a different version of this song yesterday, but check out this video.

Okay, fine. This one, too. I can’t get enough of these damn people.

Thank you, Chris Thile and the Kennedy Center, for putting on these free events that made me realize how much I love music ❤

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shows I’ve Seen: American Acoustic Festival, Part I

This festival took place the weekend of June 24th, and it’s taken me till July 20th to review it. Total fail, though really this series of shows was so memorable that I could probably write this a year from now and still remember every detail.

To be fair, the week after the festival was spent moving my insane amount of crap out of my apartment in Baltimore and into a storage unit…

The next week I was sick with a crazy fever + puking… (I did NOT get the job I interviewed for while running a fever, but it’s fun wondering what kooky things I may have told the interviewer over the phone while my temperature was 102.)

The next week was an existential crisis over the fact that I’m basically George Costanza right now, unemployed and living with my parents. I am not, however, anywhere near bald. Trying to look on the bright side, here 😉

So I guess this is the week I’ll be updating my blog that nobody reads! (Hey, not that I blame you.. I mean, why read George’s blog when you could read Jerry’s?)

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American Acoustic @ The Kennedy Center – Washington, DC on 6/24/16

Evening show ft. Chris Thile & the Punch Brothers, Edgar Meyer & Bela Fleck, and I’m With Her (Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aoife O’Donovan)

Wow. My mind couldn’t wrap myself around this lineup. My mother reared me on all kinds of music, but what resonated with me the most were the classical/Americana/bluegrass-fusion albums recorded by Edgar Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, and Mark O’Connor as a trio. This genre-mesh continues to fascinate me, and has only evolved since these albums were released in the mid-90’s. Chris Thile has been recording with Edgar Meyer in recent years, and joined him and Yo-Yo Ma with the addition of Stuart Duncan on 2011’s “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.” Mom and I saw Edgar Meyer in concert several years back, and also enjoyed hearing him with Bela Fleck on “Music For Two” and “Uncommon Ritual.” These guys are true masters of their craft, using incredible musicianship to mix genres in a modern way while still paying homage to old traditions. Needless to say, Mom was the perfect date for this show.

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During the first half of the evening, each of the three groups performed some of their own material. For the second half, they all sat in a semi-circle and took turns joining each other in the middle of the stage for some truly amazing collaborations.

I’ve been dying to see the Punch Brothers live for awhile now, and they did not disappoint in the slightest. Thile leads the band with his own quirky sort of hip geekiness, but the guys play as a true unit. No detail is left unaccounted for – dynamics, technical proficiency, rhythm, or emotion. I could do an entire post on my love of all things Chris Thile, but I’ll try to contain myself in this one and save that for another time. Prepare yourselves.

If the Meyer/Ma/O’Connor albums adapt bluegrass and Americana to a classical idiom, the Punch Brothers build on this by doing the opposite. They take pop-oriented songs and play them on traditional bluegrass instruments, but treat them like classical pieces. When I first heard Thile sing, I thought he sounded eerily similar to a Backstreet Boy. Nowadays, I appreciate the way his voice weaves in and out of this crazy tapestry of instrumental layers, wailing pop metaphors while he and the band play meticulous melodies that spur and slow in the vein of a dynamically-charged classical piece. Don’t believe me? Check out his 40-minute classical suite for bluegrass instruments featured on the first Punch Brothers album.

Edgar Meyer & Bela Fleck’s set featured some of the beautiful music on the aforementioned “Music for Two” album. Mom and I watched the album’s making-of bonus DVD back when I was in high school, and laughed ourselves silly when Bela Fleck freaked out over the piece Edgar wrote in 15/8. I love Edgar Meyer, but he goes way over my head… and even over Bela Fleck’s head, it seems. That’s saying a lot, since Bela is one of the greatest banjo players in the world. The music they play together continues the theme of classical bluegrass seen on the “Uncommon Ritual” album,  but with only two layers. The beauty of the duet lineup is that that you can clearly hear the way Bela’s haunting banjo melodies compliment the low, resonant dance of Edgar’s bass.

I was insanely excited to hear I’m With Her, a band comprised of three women with stellar careers in their own rights. Sara Watkins blew me away when I saw her live for the first time in March, and Sara Jarosz… Well, read my review of her new album to get the gist on why I love her. The member I knew the least about was Aoife O’Donovan, but that changed REALLY fast after I saw her sing live, and I’ve been blasting Crooked Still albums for weeks.

These ladies’ voices blend together in a way I never really knew was possible. Sometimes they sound as though they’re one voice, and sometimes the harmony is so sweet you can’t imagine that even heaven could sound that good (Thile said something along those lines during the show). These women do with their voices what the Punch Brothers do with their instruments, using the subtleties of dynamic, rhythm, melody, and harmony in such a way that the result is overwhelming and achingly beautiful to the ear. Sara Watkins’ sweet voice, jumping easily between a high falsetto and a pure lead, blends perfectly with Aoife O’Donovan’s crystal-clear, airy counterpart, while Jarosz’s low, sometimes husky croon holds down the bass for the trio. I can’t figure out if these ladies are greater than the sum of their parts or not. I love them together just as much as I do apart.

The collaboration between members of the three groups is where things got really interesting. I’m With Her sang a beautiful song with Edgar Meyer backing them on bass. One of the great thing about Meyer is that he knows when pull out all the stops and when to hold back. He can be flashy, or he can compliment another group perfectly by stepping back and using simple lines that bring them together as a whole.

Jarosz sang a song with the Punch Brothers that left me spellbound, and it took me the longest time to figure out if it was a Punch Brothers song or a Jarosz song. Turns out it was neither and both. It was a cover of Radiohead’s “The Tourist,” a track which Jarosz released on her second album, backed by Punch Brothers.

My favorite performance of the evening was a haunting rendition of “Here and Now” from the aforementioned album, “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.” This song featured the Punch Brothers + Meyer on bass + Aoife O’Donovan on lead vocals. I could feel the chills the minute O’Donovan and Thile started to sing together. The harmony is perfect, driving, and intense. These two are pure magic together.

This amazing group of musicians continued to impress throughout the evening as they paired up, paired down, and even played all together. I couldn’t imagine a better show, and I was in awe by the end of the evening. That night, I saw what they could do, but the next day I was able to get a good look into how they do it through two FREE workshops.

Stay tuned for Part II, and be prepared for some major fangirlisms 😉