Wednesday, 6 May 2009

LIVE REVIEW: Dark Was The Night @ Radio City Music Hall, Manhattan

Understandably, given the worthy nature of the project and the calibre of artists it attracted, Dark Was The Night Live has already received some glowing and well written reviews. In fact, LastFM had user opinions posted within 2 hours of the show finishing, which must mean the writer lived in mid-Manhattan as the subways definitely don't support that kind of rapid return in the dead of a Sunday night. To share the variety of opinions, some of these perspectives are shared shortly after my own meadering prose. This show was already special as the tickets were a gift from my better half, with whom the concert experience is greatly improved simply by the act of sharing thoughts and moments. The main motivation was initially to see The National again after a brilliant UK ATP set last year, as well as catching the much hyped Bon Iver live set. As I read more about the nature of the show it became clear this was going to be something very different (and hopefully special) so excitement grew. A brief thank you and onto the show!

Firstly, Radio City Music Hall is a pleasant, if slightly disconcerting space in which to watch bands that usually play much grimier locations. It's much more like a cinema complex than a venue, what with the multiple vending stations selling bad popcorn and assorted overpriced snacking garbage. The extortionate price of beer did revive memories of shows at the Manchester Evening News Arena, though, so therein existed some familiarity. The important thing, however, was that the seats afforded a good overall view of the stage and the sound was outstanding.

As with the recorded effort, Dirty Projectors kicked off proceedings with what, to my ears, was a slightly awkward and not particularly rousing tune. For a mid headline set slow down it might be appropriate, but surely not something this pedestrian to blast into a night of this magnitude? Despite this, their second song was far more impressive and they then brought out the big guns - namely David Byrne and his guitar (for accuracy of plurality) - for the DWTN recorded cuts Ambulance Man and Knotty Pine. The latter would have been a perfect, albeit obvious opener to the show, whilst the latter burns slowly and gently, showcasing the talents of Byrne's cultured tones. This is what people had come for and the reception for Mr Byrne made this abundantly clear.

MP3: Dirty Projectors & David Byrne - Ambulance Man

Following this, Red Hot founder John Carlin came out for a wee chat about the organisation's history and past projects. He introduced a Sinead O'Connor video which started off a feature present throughout the night, breaking up the band sets - and presumably member/equipment changes - with cause oriented videos. These were hit and miss, other than the excellent women in rock feature. Highlight: Bikini Kill noting that walking around in pyjamas and a handbag will help you to stand out and avoid being messed with. Note this doesn't apply if you live in the Toxteth area of Liverpool, in which you look out of place in anything other than this apparel.

Returning to the music,
My Brightest Diamond was up next featuring Shara Worden serenading an impressed audience with a cover of Nina Simone's Feeling Good. An unexpected high, even if the version on the compilation is also a high quality cut. Shortly after, the members of The National not involved with the actual project organisation joined the brothers Dessner (who had backed Shara) onstage for an early highlight, a four song set with two new jams.

To ease us in gently they broke out with
Slow Show, a known and happily familiar quantity from Boxer. The first newie was titled England and is thus naturally the best song they've ever written. Patriotic hyperbole aside, it sounded very promising ahead of a new album later this year (I think.....I hope), with a melancholy air and lyrics referencing angels and London. Not much to go on, I know. Trust me, it was bonzer. Remembering why they were here, the band then threw in their solid effort from the compilation, So Far Around The Bend. Without being the best track on the disc, this is still an endearing National tune. To close out we received another noob and the pick of the two, Vanderlye Crybaby (which is probably spelt a little differently than this, but close enough I'm sure). This came closer to Boxer material but filled in the gaps with a similar air to England, utilised Berninger's silky baritone effectively and, once again, whet some appetites for their next outing.

MP3: The National - Slow Show (Live)

One more artist before the interlude (again with the cinema/theatre feeling but what might one expect with nearly 4 hours of entertainment to get through? People need to wee) and a muted reception for Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio fame. From the conversation around me it seemed many didn't recognise him and, to be fair, he is one of the less outlandish looking members of an outlandishly good band. Like MBD before him, he kept his offering to the compilation cut With A Girl Like You and that was that. Good song, reasonable performance thereof.

----- Let's all go to the looobby, let's all go to the looobby, let's all go to the loooooooobby, to get ourselves a treat -----

Life savings spent on another disappointing snack and/or beverage, folks returned to their seats to be greeted by a marching line of drummers, followed by the irrepressible Byrne coming back to run through a few older numbers on past Red Hot projects. This started with an energetic and powerful Don't Fence Me In, then moved into Dreamworld: Marco de Canavezes accompanied by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (who filled in during many performances throughout) and closed with Waters of March, helped out by Feist. These were all good reminders of the quality that has gone before this excellent DWTN compilation across 20 odd projects.

Then what happened?
Bon Iver happened, that's what. I really had no idea that this would be as good as it was to prove. I adore the Blood Bank ep and For Emma, Forever Ago has been slowly warming the cockles of my heart on rainy NYC days, yet there is so much more going on when these guys get together as a full live band. Rolling off with Brackett, W9 from the comp, it's immediately clear that Vernon's voice is naturally powerful and has no problem replicating the fragile beauty it evokes on record. It's when he electrifies proceedings for the initial melodies of Blood Bank that the hairs really start to stand on end, though. Understand that on the ep, this is a quiet, restrained affair recounting a beautiful story of two people sharing simple experiences (parallels not lost on me this evening). Thus, when Vernon and the band approach the song with blistering electric guitars and venture off into solos further in, it comes as a complete surprise. The absolute genius of the whole shebang is that it in no way loses the emotion of the original version. In fact it only adds to the complicated longing conveyed by the song. As this attempt to dissect the moment probably hints, this was undoubtedly my highest highlight of the entire night. Not to take away either from the excellent Big Red Machine and an adoringly receieved Flume to follow it, which were almost as spectacular, but that was the soaring peak on my aural landscape.

MP3: Bon Iver - Skinny Love (courtesy of Insound)

Following this was difficult but Leslie Feist showed up and did her darnedest, choosing to strip things right down to just her and the guitar for an intimate acoustic feel. It worked somewhat, with a song with feminist overtones starting off (no probs with that, except that not all women are "chained to their husbands", surely?!) and then an appearance by the ubiquitous Vernon, taking the spot filled by Ben Gibbard on record for a run through of Train Song. Feist's highlight was certainly the dirty, down home Blues-laden song that closed her set though. Another welcoming reception ensured that she left the stage able to be pleased with her contribution.

From the start of the show, John Carlin had promised that Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings would end the show, because "who can follow Sharon?". To be honest, other than the decent song on the compilation I had no idea who Sharon was, let alone whether or not anyone could follow her and the inextricably linked Dap Kings. As it turns out, Carlin was bang on the money. Initially with just the band onstage, the guitarist-in-chief belts out a string of superlatives to introduce"soul sista" Sharon Jones. Then on comes a large and very definitely in charge lady, strutting her stuff and informing the audience that she has been cooped up backstage far too long and needs to DANCE! And that she does, knocking out shape after shape and constantly referencing the late, great James Brown as she goes. The music is soul-powered funk with the full swing of the Dap Kings behind it, dropping audience jaws with the contrast to the excellent but comparatively sedate indie rock that has gone before it. Garnering a standing ovation for the boundless energy she puts into the few songs played, there really wouldn't have been any following them.

That said, there was still some follow up to be done, as the entire cast of the show (minus a conspicuous by her absence Jones) returned to pay tribute to one Pete Seeger, who's 90 today and having a quiet one over at Madison Square Garden with maybe five or six (thousand) close friends. The gathered ensemble explain this and begin a quiet singalong of Seeger's This Land Is My Land, which starts off pleasantly but begins to drag after a few minutes. Sauntering across the stage to save us from the meandering ditty, Sharon Jones grabs the mic and informs everyone that that version is fine, but her Dap Kings have an inifinitely superior take to offer. So once again the whole place is swept up in the vital energy and upbeat, feel good vibe that the lady imparts.

Nothing really was to follow that and the crowd, standing to applaud enthusiastically once more, began to file away into the depressingly grey, wet NYC night. Notably, though, most are smiling from ear to ear regardless of the conditions outside, knowing that inside we've just witnessed something very special and contributed to a worthy cause at the same time. And even if music can achieve only this, I think everybody will be perfectly satisfied with the outcome.

PERSPECTIVE: Brooklyn Vegan / Stereogum / LastFM

Red Hot Organisation Info

Dark Was The Night Compilation

Buy (Insound) / Buy (iTunes)

Selected tunes from the comp:

Now playing: Bon Iver - Blindsided
via FoxyTunes

No comments: