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It was the closer on Saturday night that nearly brought a tear to my eye. The whole ‘family’ was on stage and they all sang together, along with the crowd as the night wrapped up. It’s nights like this that keep me interested in this blog. It’s nights like this that remind me why music is essential. It’s nights like this that make me proud to be a part, albeit a small one, of the journey the MusicNOW Festival has taken in eight short years.
As I walked away from Memorial Hall on Saturday night, and hummed the closing collaboration, as Glen Hansard predicted we would, I said aloud…”THAT is why MusicNOW is special, THAT is why there is nothing like it.”
You’ll have to excuse my hyperbole on this one but I really feel that way. The same thing I experienced when Sufjan Stevens wowed us in 2007, the same thing that filled the room when Grizzly Bear and Andrew Bird played in 2008 and the same emotion that was on display when Justin Vernon and friends performed Sounds Of The South in 2010. There are plenty of other standout performances, but those are especially etched in my memory.
And so was Saturday night.
But it would be wrong for me to gloss over Friday night when recalling the weekend, because it was special as well.
We were treated to several fantastic performances, led by Buke and Gase, who I wrote about here on ENS before the festival. I enjoyed their set, which was heavy with material from their excellent album General Dome. As good as the set was, it really ended up being just a primer for the things that followed. Up next Richard Reed Parry took the stage flanked by a percussionist and another MusicNOW alum, Laurel Sprengelmeyer, better known to audiences as Little Scream. Together they performed a series of new songs, that Richard confessed were only being performed for an audience for the second time ever, and first time on U.S. soil. He also confessed his love for all things MusicNOW, including the statement that Memorial Hall was “his favorite concert hall in the world.”
Finally, the opening night would feature a performance most in attendance couldn’t anticipate from Tinariwen. You can count me in the class of attendees that was mostly ignorant about the band before looking them up as I prepared for MusicNOW. I won’t dive into the history of the group, but will simply say that they have been together since the 70′s, served and performed at military camps together for years, were widely ‘discovered’ only in the early 2000′s and have since become a Grammy winning band and a big live draw. The band of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali not only carried in a fantastic back story, but also a fan base that I none of us have seen at a MusicNOW performance, and might not again. Once the band took the stage, fans began to leave their seats and casually walk up to the stage.
They filled the pit area and the aisles and stayed there during the entire set, cheering and dancing in admiration of the band and their performance. For a typically docile crowd and environment, this was both joyous and exhilarating as I felt like I was part of the experience, yet was also a voyeur to the experience so many others were having.
I’ve already made mention of Saturday night at the beginning of this piece. For me, it was another special MusicNOW night. The evening began with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who festival curator Bryce Dessner has worked with several times in the past, and was anxious to show off to the MusicNOW crowd. The group of over forty 12-17 year olds were incredibly composed, hard working and most importantly are remarkably talented. They did a great set which included several of the MusicNOW performers from previous nights and years premiering pieces they had penned with the Chorus in mind. This included new stuff from Richard Reed Parry and Shara Worden, and Bryce joining the chorus as well for some great pieces.
Glen Hansard was the biggest name on the MusicNOW bill to many, after all, it was the night with the most in attendance, and ever since the film Once, Glen’s music has risen to the surface for many. For those of us that were big fans of Glen’s band, The Frames, his newfound success was a bit of a mixed bag. We were incredibly happy to see him excel, but kinda wished that it was within the context of The Frames. That being said, I loved Once, The Swell Season and even some of the stuff on Glen’s new solo album, so I was excited for the set.
If there was any doubt about whether or not Glen would fit the mold of the MusicNOW experience, those doubts were washed away almost immediately as Glen confessed after just one song that he was already jumping off of the prepared setlist. Any fears that newfound fame had changed the former Irish street musician were squashed as well when his stage banter was welcoming, warm and comfortable. During his time on the Memorial Hall stage, it felt like we got a little bit of everything. From Glen spontaneously breaking into a verse or two of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’, to a broken string that led to him leading the crowd in Daniel Johnston’s ‘Devil Town.’ Maybe Glen does this every night, but he had me convinced that we were getting a unique show here, and there was plenty more where that came from.
About halfway through the set, and after a surprising yet fantastic cover of Kitty Wells’ ‘Cincinnati, Ohio’, Glen dipped into the Once soundtrack. He explained that he rarely does ‘Falling Slowly’ anymore because it was written to be a duet, but that he was doing it tonight because a member of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and himself had practiced it earlier in the day. After an unassuming 14 or 15 year old girl walked onstage, some might have had their doubts but she not only held up her end of the duet, she had everyone on their feet cheering by the time the song had finished.
And after all of that, it was probably the closer that choked me up the most. The group did an amazing cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Passing Through.’ Words don’t do it justice, thankfully Keith Klenowski captured it on video.
And after all of this, we were treated to the greatest living composer on Sunday night, Steve Reich and So Percussion on Sunday night. I was feeling a little under the weather, so I’m sad to report I missed a big chunk of the night, but from what I’ve heard it was another special night.
Bryce, I trust you man, even when I’m not sure what you are doing with your curation, even when I don’t know much about who and what you are going to present, I trust you because I’ve never been let down at this festival in eight years. I can’t wait until next year.
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