NPR’s Mountain Stage had a rare mid-week concert Wednesday night, and temporarily switched venues for the occasion. Scheduled to perform were Neko Case, Crooked Fingers, Vic Chesnutt, Greg Brown, and Sonos.
The radio concert series is usually taped live in front of an audience at the Cultural Center auditorium in Charleston’s Capital Complex. But for this night, the show was held at the Civic Center’s Little Theater – the same venue where the Irish boys played last May. I prefer the comfy atmosphere of the Cultural Center, but I’ll take Mountain Stage wherever I can get it.
Though I do wish they had not booked the program for the same time and venue as Ringling Bros. Circus. While Mountain Stage was held in the Little Theater, the circus was going on in the main coliseum of the Civic Center. I do enjoy a circus, but not the crowd that goes with it. I arrived early enough that it didn’t affect me much, but I heard several complaints from others both before and after the show about the parking problems and cramped space for the line at the Little Theater’s door. Charleston isn’t exactly a boomtown of entertainment, so I can only assume the double booking was due to the artist’s schedules.
Once we all filed in to find our seats, though, the grumbles died down. The lobby of the Little Theater may be too tiny to house such a large crowd, but the auditorium is very nice. All Mountain Stage shows are general admission seating, but it’s always an orderly affair. Say what you will about West Virginians, we are typically polite. Lots of friendly “excuse me”s and “thank you”s in the air as I walked to the sixth row back from the stage.
I was surprised to see video cameras positioned in various places around the stage, and one on a large crane near my seat. Though the show was taped and broadcast on PBS for a short time, it had been a while since a new concert was taped for television. As Assistant Producer Adam Harris explained during his introduction, they were taping a pilot to be shopped around to cable networks. Anything that gives Mountain Stage positive attention and helps the show survive is a good thing to me, so I hope it gets picked up.
I felt a bit nostalgic as the house band took their places and host Larry Groce once again dueted with singer Julie Adams on the show’s theme song. Like many people across the nation, I’ve watched the tragic state of the economy rob my hometown (which isn’t really big enough to be called a town) and surrounding cities like Charleston of many of their staple businesses. Almost all of the Mom and Pop grocery stores, restaurants, and other small businesses that populated my life have crumbled beneath the weight of this recession. Except Mountain Stage, which has miraculously managed to maintain its rural roots while still progressing with the modern age. So you can listen to the show online and they occasionally book the hot “indie” artists making the blog rounds, but the show itself is as genuine and substantial as the first time I attended in high school.
First up were Sonos, a six-piece vocal ensemble from Southern California that performs a cappella covers of songs by popular indie artists. Sonos are Paul Peglar, Ben McLain, Rachel Bearer, Jessica Freedman, Katharine Anne Hoye, and Christopher Given Harrison. I was unfamiliar with them before the concert, but they can count me among their fans now. I was particularly impressed with human beatbox Ben McLain and the vocals of Jessica Freedman, whose seraphic voice sounds similar to that of The Bird & The Bee‘s Inara George. Among the re-imagined a cappella covers they performed at the concert were Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place”, Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal”, and “Oh What A World” by Rufus Wainwright.
Mountain Stage singer Julie Adams gave her rendition of “These Days” before the incomparable, brilliant, amazing Vic Chesnutt took the stage. I think it was in 2002 when I first saw Vic at Mountain Stage, shortly before he released Silver Lake. The best word I can use to describe his set back then is transcendent. His performance of “In My Way, Yes” was particularly moving. His recent collaboration with Elf Power, Dark Developments, has a slightly harder sound, so I didn’t expect him to duplicate the magic of his past performance. But he did.
After some lighthearted banter with host Larry Groce, Vic sang “Mystery”. The Mountain Stage band joined him for the song, and it made me wish pianist Bob Thompson would branch out into rock more often. Thompson’s beautiful piano playing was the perfect complement for Vic’s voice.
If you readers ever wonder why I’m cynical about certain other performers (see below), all you have to do is see Vic Chesnutt in concert. After witnessing live sets by artists like Vic Chesnutt, Odetta, Joan Baez, Amy Correia, and more recently Rachael Yamagata (all singers whose voices seem to wrestle with their own bodies before ripping out into the air full force), it’s difficult to ignore what I personally feel are weaker performances. And not only does Vic Chesnutt possess such an awe-inspiring voice, but his lyrics and melodies are just as powerful. I wish he had been asked to do an encore.
Chesnutt proceeded to play “Stop The Horse”, a mesmeric ballad I didn’t recognize (with the lyrics “feast in the time of plague”), and a funny song about his grandmother. Vic said the latter song came to him in dream, but he forgot two of the verses when he awoke. Ever the audience charmer, he added (in a very high pitched voice): “they were killer!”
Crooked Fingers had to walk into Vic’s shadow, but they did an admirable job of it. Though I didn’t enjoy the band’s Forfeit / Fortune quite as much as I did lead singer Eric Bachmann’s solo effort To The Races, I figured they would put on a good show and they certainly did.
The announcement that Bachmann was a former member of Archers of Loaf drew a large roar from the crowd, but he seemed a humble fellow. He and the other two members of the band quickly launched into “Little Bird”. It must be said that studio recordings do not do justice to the band’s instrumentation, vocal harmony, or the rich tone of Eric’s voice. I especially liked their loud, passionate performance of the album’s title track.
I’d also seen singer-songwriter Greg Brown at Mountain Stage before, though I can’t remember when. I always hate to write anything negative about artists here. But I’ve been criticized for being too nice in my reviews in the past, so I do try to be honest when I don’t like something. So honestly, I was bored and annoyed with Brown’s pseudo intoxicated folk schtick. Leon Redbone (who I also saw at Mt. Stage years ago) can carry off that kind of routine because he is a strong singer and musician, and has the stage presence to match it. But Brown’s funny hat just wasn’t enough for me. I felt like I was watching my drunk uncle pluck a guitar at a family reunion.
However, Brown is always a crowd pleaser at Mountain Stage, and is obviously a respected and well liked artist in general. So maybe I just don’t get the joke? I did like the one blues song that he sang, which I thought was much better suited to his deep voice. And being sandwiched between two elegant piano performances by Bob Thompson (first the Mountain Stage theme, then a Bill Evans tune) didn’t help my perception of Brown’s comical set.
Last but not least was Neko Case, who seemed to be the artist that most of the crowd came to see. I’ve been a fan of Neko’s ever since I first heard her twangy wail on the title track of Furnace Room Lullaby in 2000. As expected, Case performed new material from her latest release Middle Cyclone (review forthcoming).
Neko and her bright red hair were accompanied only by a guitarist and a backup singer. After some tampon jokes, she and her band launched into a somewhat sedate version of “People Got A Lotta Nerve” – a song Neko described as a “circus killing spree” and dedicated to the circus next door. She followed that with the new album’s title track, then she and her singing partner revealed their “old lady crushes” (Neko, for example, likes Gene Hackman and Peter Falk) before their first performance of “The Pharoahs”.
I don’t know if Brown just killed my enthusiasm for the show or my expectations were too high, but I was a little disappointed by Case’s vocal restraint during the set. The new album has a much smoother veneer than her older releases, but I’d hoped she’d let those pipes lose on stage. But other than a few select notes (the effects of which were dampened by her moving away from the mic), her vocals were undeniably pretty but not nearly as powerful as she is obviously capable of. I wonder if she was sick or suffering from vocal strain, because she restarted and then abandoned a Buffy Sainte-Marie cover halfway through the song – simply saying “sorry, can’t do it” – and repeated “The Pharoahs” at the end of the set because she thought the first take sounded “underwater”.
The highlights of her set were “Vengeance Is Sleeping”, “I Wish I Was The Moon” (from Blacklisted), and her beautiful cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me”.
Neko opted out of the group finale, which was a song I didn’t recognize. I was feeling a little under the weather myself, so I didn’t stick around to see if the artists mingled with the crowd in the lobby afterwards. Which probably worked to my advantage, because I heard the traffic after the show (which ended precisely as the circus did) was horrendous. Oh well, it would have been worth it to see Vic Chesnutt.
Check out my friend (and NPR DJ) Mona Seghatoleslami’s review of the show at The Gazz.
Crooked Fingers – Phony Revolutions (mp3) *
*mp3 hosted by & posted w/ permission of Toolshed Media