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 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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