Thursday, March 15, 2012

New Multitudes

After two hours of sleep on Sunday night, there was no way I was going to go to the Birchmere on Monday to buy a scalped ticket to the sold-out New Multitudes show. My craigslist posting in search of a ticket had yielded no responses, and between my exhaustion and the likely fruitlessness, I was giving up.

Then at 4:00pm, I got a text asking if I was still interested, and my fatigue was washed away by the adrenaline my body started producing -- I was going to the show!

Things kept getting better once I committed to going. The seller wanted $50, but I got there before he did and someone outside was selling a ticket for face ($30), so I jumped at it. I spotted a single seat in the middle of the room, directly in front of stage right -- perfect. In response to my asking if the seat was available, I got a response that it was, but that I should be warned that the conversation was going to be about beer.

Bobby Bare, Jr. offered an entertaining opening set, mixing his songs fairly evenly between the depressing and the absurd, occasionally serving up songs with a healthy heaping of both qualities.

As for New Multitudes, let me start off by telling who they are, because the name isn't familiar to many people yet. For that matter, if I had recognized the name early enough, I probably would have bought a ticket before it sold out and saved myself a lot of anxiety. Billy Bragg and Wilco plumbed the Woody Guthrie archives a decade ago to compose songs from lyrics that evidently had never been set to music, resulting in the highly acclaimed Mermaid Avenue albums. Now, in honor of the centennial of Guthrie's birth, a different set of musicians have released a different set of Guthrie lyrics they've set to music. New Multitudes consists of Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket), Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt), Anders Parker (Varnaline), and Will Johnson (Centro-matic). Despite my long-held appreciation of the music produced by the first three of those men (nothing against Johnson, I'm just not familiar with his music), I had never seen any of them perform.

The first half of the show was a live performance of the 12 songs on the New Multitudes album, in the order in which they appear on the album, with virtually no dialogue. Each performer led the band for three songs. Johnson was mostly behind the drums, but on the occasions he stepped out from there to take the lead, Parker squeezed his rather large frame into the small space on the stage for the drummer. Meanwhile, Yames mostly played bass, and Farrar stayed on guitar. I'd only played the new album a couple of times prior to the show (I purchased the deluxe version, which includes 11 additional songs performed by Farrar and Parker, further diluting my familiarity with the new album). At times the compositions didn't involve all four band members, leaving one or two of them to stand uncomfortably idle for a couple of minutes. Still, their evident comfort with each other during the songs where they all performed overcame those awkward moments. Highlights of this set included the Johnson-led "Chorine My Sheba Queen" and the Yames-led "Talking Empty Bed Blues."

Something that surprised me in this portion of the show was the expansion of the album versions in several instances, with the resulting jams leaning toward garage/psychedelic -- the live version of Yames' "My Revolutionary Mind" particularly stood out in this regard. Regardless, the differences from the album were quite enjoyable, giving me a further appreciation of the songs. At some point during the show I remembered that the collaboration between the musicians began as early as 2006, so that even though the songs are new to the audience, no doubt ideas have continued to percolate and be passed among them in the time since the songs were arranged.

Once the band had played the 12 songs from the album, they took a short break, after which each member came out to do a solo acoustic tune. For me, the highlight of the show was when Parker played "Song," off the 2001 Varnaline album Songs in a Northern Key. I've loved this album for many years and had hoped he'd play something off it, though I thought the odds were rather slim -- what a delightful surprise! I was silently screaming along as Parker played -- it was all I could do not to sing along to probably the quietest song on the night. For Americana, "Song" is a fairly electric song, but Parker's stripped-down acoustic version added a staccato element that gave the song a greater sound of urgency than the original.

Their solo acoustic numbers complete, the entire band came back out for five more songs. Each man led one of the first four songs from his own catalog of songs, before the band closed with Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty." This was the band at its integrated best, particularly for Son Volt's "Bandages & Scars" and the Guthrie tune, the latter transformed into a sprawling 12-minute tune that had the band leave the stage one at a time, until finally Johnson was along on stage pounding the drums with a fierce intensity and backed only by the feedback playing throughout the final song.

All told, it was one of my favorite concerts ever, and it left me so pumped that after coming home I still needed another hour to settle down enough to drag my exhausted self to sleep 24 hours after I'd last awoken.

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