(all photos by Keith Klenowski)
Last night marked the opening of the MusicNOW festival here in Cincinnati. I get to say “here” because an event like this is so important to me, I returned home to attend it. MusicNOW is offically a tradition, bringing together a rich collection of artists and fans at Memorial Hall for the past five years. And to kick things off this year, Bryce Dessner brought together what was arguably the best opening night in the festivals history.
Walking up to Memorial Hall brought back a flood of memories for me, as I remembered years past and taking the same approach (I usually park in the same spot actually.) Arriving early is a good idea on nights like this, the show was sold out and the earlier you get there, the better chance you have at landing a good seat. There were probably about 100 others that knew this, and they littered the front steps of Memorial Hall, waiting for the doors to officially open.
Walking inside the historic venue brought more memories for me, as well as several hugs and handshakes from friends that I had not seen for some time. I chose a balcony seat and got ready to take in the nights performances. The installations from Karl Jensen were back again as if they belonged in their space to the left and right of the stage, although I know it took several hours to place them where they hung.
Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes opened the night up, taking the stage along with his guitar in tow. The frontman had lots of new material to share, even remarking that several of the songs were “unfinished.” It was an opportunity to not only get a taste of some new stuff, but also to see Pecknold in a rare environment, on stage by himself. He mentioned that he didn’t typically do solo shows, and that he was still not entirely comfortable in that setting, and you could tell, as his stage banter, while funny, was a bit forced. Of course, the music was the main draw, and that was as natural as it can be. The new songs, coupled with a few familiar Fleet Foxes songs, were the perfect appetizer for the evening.
In between sets Bryce informed us all that a harp takes a good 40 minutes to tune, to the surprise of the crowd, but the intermission was another excuse to walk around and catch up with friends and experience some more of the venue.
By the time Joanna Newsom took the stage with her band, we were all a bit more than ready to take in what she had to offer. I was a slight bit skeptical I must say, because the meticulous nature of her albums seem like they might be difficult to replicate for a live audience. I was however, hopelessly wrong about that. Not only did Newsom hit every note on the well tuned harp, which needed constant tuning throughout the night, but she also orchestrated her band through each well rehearsed number like a pixie looking maestro. Her very unique vocals, which have polarized many, were nothing short of delightful as well and the setlist was a great mixture of each of her three albums.
Among those tunes was the opening song “Bridges & Balloons” from her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender, and also did my personal favorite from that record later in the set “The Book Of Right-On.” From here most recent album, standouts included “Soft As Chalk” and the absolute gem “Good Intentions Paving Company” on which she asked Robin Pecknold on stage to provide some additional percussion. When it seems a bit pointless for Robin to be out there, and he looked a little out of place as well (the additional percussion was clapping for half the song) the tune ended with a surprise happy birthday song and cake for Pecknold, who seemed genuinely surprised.
The night was so full of big performances that it felt like a closing night more than an opener, but it was only the shaping of things to come this week in Cincinnati. Two more nights of this great festival remain, and we will be around for every moment.