Sounds of the New South

by Brian Howe on September 20, 2010

photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Today on The Thread, we offer three different perspectives on all three nights of the “Sounds of the South” performances that Megafaun and friends triumphantly wrapped up yesterday. Thanks to everyone who came out ready to hoot, holler, and clap along, which helped to make the engagement such a big success—and stay tuned for information on the live album that will result from this one-of-a-kind Duke Performances event. 

photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Friday, September 17:

“I just swore in a church,” Megafaun’s Brad Cook sheepishly confessed, realizing he’d just said “shit” in a rambling introduction to Fred McDowell’s “Drop Down Mama.” Not that anyone in the audience at the Hayti Heritage Center, formerly St. Joseph’s AME Church, seemed to mind. After all, this performance—in which Megafaun and Fight the Big Bull teamed up with special guests Justin Vernon and Sharon Van Etten to reinterpret songs documented a half-century ago on Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South collection—was all about a nonconformist approach to traditionalism that produced moments of radiant beauty. Cameron Ralston’s bowed upright bass laid down a graceful low end, and Vernon took a soulful lead vocal on McDowell’s “When I Get Home,” backed by a heavily bearded trio of R&B-style backup singers who might consider a side career as “ZZ Pips.” An a capella medley of Almeda Riddle songs, with Van Etten’s voice soaring high above the anchoring chorus, was spectacular.

But it’s hard to be this adventurous without a few missteps, especially on opening night. The ensemble’s take on John Dudley’s “Cool Water Blues” tested my patience with its overly deliberate pace. Van Etten did her best to liven it up with a smoldering, bluesy croon, but after each vocal turn, the song backslid into an overly repetitive groove. And the “tribute to Vera Ward” felt like self-indulgent laptop shenanigans; Megafaun’s Joe Westerlund and Brad Cook tried to play off the horn section’s intriguing jazz passages with loops and samples of Ward’s voice, but the results didn’t end up serving the song. But payoff requires risk, and on this night, the thirteen musicians onstage and the packed audience left the Hayti with our just reward.— Peter Blackstock

photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Saturday, September 18:

To me, an epic arrangement of Hobart Smith’s “The Arkansas Traveler” exemplified the whole show on Saturday night. Phil Cook and FtBB’s Matt White started off with a banjo and dobro duet, with Cook’s claw-hammer trot counterpointed by White’s John Fahey-like runs. I thought “yeah, indie bluegrass, very nice,” until FttB’s eccentric percussionist Pinson Chanselle started splashing and ratcheting in various cowrie-encrusted gourds, channeling a rhythmic mouse trapped in a silverware drawer. The horn section entered with even sustains and Mingus-like Big Band gestures, seeming at first to be disconnected from the banjo and dobro: an urban brass pastiche floating above a rural, persistent bottom.

Then, suddenly, it all somehow crashed together, the hulking momentum unified by thrilling trombone blats. As two drummers smiled at each other, joyfully fitting a 6-beat over an 8, I realized that the history of the twentieth-century South had just been told: a sonorous discord in which the pre-Civil War era, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, urban renewal, and the New South mingled in a palimpsest. That these complex arrangements came together in only a week is both a testament to the talent assembled and a connection to the music’s history of being slapped together as neighbors and family pulled on their choir robes in the chapel. My only complaint: I would have loved more Van Etten, who glided onstage to moan, “I asked for cool water, but she gave me gasoline” over a beat slowed to the rate of a hibernating catfish’s metabolism, her voice piercing the clamor as a Kansas City blues emerged from that Mississippi mud.—Chris Vitiello

photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Sunday, September 19:

At 5 p.m., the light in the Hayti attained a state of immanence, flooding through pastoral stained glass over the spouting Art Nouveau chandelier, the geometrically patterned pressed-tin ceiling, and tidy ranks of wooden pews. As musicians filed in like ushers at Sunday service—but with wilder beards and more plaid flannel—it was as if St. Joseph’s were consecrated all over again. The location, the music, and the concept together sounded an intricately sweet chord: What better venue for these renovated hymns and shape note songs than the same kind of humbly holy environs they sprang from?

Phil Cook was probably my favorite player of the night for his agile and counterintuitive mind—he inserted ghostly, chiming banjo harmonics where you’d expect showy solos, and his jazz piano proved athletically limber and melodically clairvoyant. But the competition was fierce. “The Arkansas Traveler,” a banjo-and-dobro conversation menaced by swooping horns, seemed to evoke some ecstatic distress, the dobro yowling in pain. It was like hearing jazz—a music whose fracturing rapaciousness seems so much like the modern American psyche—swallowing the nineteenth century whole. Brad Cook tracked the duel alertly along with the audience, grinning and shaking his head in delighted disbelief.

“Cool Water Blues” had a rock-solid but seasick stagger, with its tumbling slabs of percussion earning riotous callbacks from the crowd, not to mention Van Etten’s delirious yet precision-lathed pitch slides. The players ranged far, transmuting roughshod hymns into scorching desert-rock, dying-star jazz, cerebral collage, and even something like D.C. Go-Go music. (At least that’s what one wildly percussive, fife-led number evoked to me.) My few qualms were idiosyncratic. A digital deconstruction of Vera Ward’s voice was the only song that felt more interesting than visceral—I loved the idea and the glossolaliac sound of Ward’s voice, but it all felt in search of a more holistic structure—and the free-jazz shriek at the start of “Calvary” was a nervy (and nerve-jangling) choice so late in the set, although it quickly settled into stately chords with one razzing horn that seemed to chuckle at our limbic distress.

The encore—“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”—was a surprising and perfect choice, and not only for the well-earned esprit de corps with which the ensemble brought their families and friends onstage to sing along. The song, of course, was written by The Band, another group of musicians who expropriated regional traditions for their own innovative ends. It made me think about how in the New South, the act of preservation—which inevitably criticizes, flenses, and finally transforms what is preserved—is crucial to our ongoing growth. Whatever the song might say, the South just won’t stay down, and in the right context—like this loving, thoughtful, and especially soulful one—that is a cause for unmitigated joy.—Brian Howe

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