Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Megafaun - 9:30 Club, Washington D.C.

By Jon Stone | @jwstone - March 28, 2011

I just returned from an epic journey out to the Capitol – my first ever visit to those Eastern States. For a middle-class west-coast guy, exploring the east feels not unlike getting to visit the places that only ever existed in books and movies: Metropolis, Coruscant, The Emerald City. With its rich history, its monuments, museums, and memorials, Washington D.C. especially has this flavor for me. So too, then, does the 9:30 Club, that venue that has been emblazoned upon my mind as the legendary site of so many stellar NPR podcasted shows. Surely these places don’t actually exist.

But they do. I’ve now been there. What’s more, I had the chance to see Megafaun – probably my favorite band right now – on Friday night in that city at that spot. Filling the warm-up slot for the Mountain Goats, the trio played a short set to a sold-out Mountain Goats crowd and rarely have I seen such gracious openers. They came out with beards, banjo, and black Gayngs sweatshirt blazing, and pushed through what seemed to be initial sound issues (faulty guitar connection, touchy vocal mic levels) and into a solid 45 minutes of great songs spanning their five-year, three-release career.

More and more, I find myself drawn to bands like Megafaun -- likely due to my ever-increasing proclivity for acoustic instruments and music. I’m fascinated by the ways that a small group of modern musicians are utilizing old-time traditions in thoughtful and progressive ways. This isn’t just a casual mining for old-time gems easily appropriated for a barn stomp – there are only a few bands that do that well (Old Crow comes to mind). Instead, artists like Megafaun’s Brad and Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund seem more interested in the chemistry and molecular structure of the old-time tradition. Their songs aren’t so much appropriations as they are alchemic deconstructions and re-assemblages of string-band traditions and sounds (see “Darkest Hour” from Gather, Form, & Fly [2009] or the twelve-and-a-half minute tone poem/song “Comprovisation for Connor Pass” on the mini-album Heretofore [2010]). And while an opening slot may not be the best place to experiment sonically like Megafaun does so masterfully on their records, there were glimpses of that genius at Friday night’s show.

They played several of my more-straightforward favorites on Friday including “The Fade,” “Carolina Days” and “Kaufman’s Ballad.” We also were treated to a ‘round-the-mic version of “Worried Mind.” They encouraged and succeeded in getting the audience to sing back-up harmonies on the latter. We were also treated to the Westerland-led spiritual “His Robe” and “Lazy Suicide,” both from their debut Bury the Square (2008) – a song Phil said had been played so many different ways, he'd lost count.

Though the 9:30 Club didn’t blow me away in their treatment of Megafaun’s unique amplification needs (Mountain Goats sounded much more balanced), their set was over too quickly and I’m left pining after my next opportunity to see them and with a renewed desire to practice my clawhammer banjo.

I left the show with both Gather, Form & Fly and Heretofore on vinyl. You should do yourself a favor and check them out as well.

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