All I Knew of the Rote Universe Were Those Pleiades Loosed in December
Brendan Cook & Paul McNeil (pictureDRIFT video) and Bill Calahan (music) - Rock Bottom Riser (2005) [download .mov]
The headliners of this weekend's Madison Pop Fest, despite the exhaustive pairing of a late night start and desperate crowds (see the comments at Muzzle of Bees today for a wildly disrespectful discussion), presented their sounds with the poise and precision of a seasoned symphony.
Emotive vocal craftsman Bill Callahan strapped himself to a lonely and uncomfortably-centered chair on the grand stage and began the strenuous process that produces his soft, but stern reflective ballads. Slightly leaning forward, his spine straightened and rested his lower chest on the wooden platform at the top of his guitar to seemingly align his vocal ramp (and anticipated projectiles) with the microphone. Bill proceeded to clench every muscle in his face and after arching his brows to painful heights, he puckered his rigid lips to push out a bassy vocal bubble... glistening with clarity of smooth construction, but quickly dropping with its own weight to float calmly along the plane of the stage. It was the first in an awe-inspiring series that managed the fragility of being simultaneously strong and vulnerable while poignantly articulating miserable love in harmony with a subtle strumming of strings. Though the performance was distinctly missing the fragile descent of "To Be of Use" and some attention to diversity to keep the crowd engaged, Bill's choices remained appropriately stoic and unapologetic.
Terri Timely (video) & Joanna Newsom (music) - Sprout and the Bean (2004) [download .mov]
Joanna Newsom galloped eagerly onto the stage next, dripping fresh from the fields of a prolonged Harvest dinner. Her immediately noticeable awkwardness bounded with the grace of a beautiful female Gollum, draped in a deeply medieval-puffed gown and the glee of the apparent success of a new hair replacement therapy. She sat down, stretched her pale arms around the harp in a simulated hug, and perched her fingers on its rows of petite columns. On her own cue sprouted a dizzying outpouring of notes, arranged in angelic runs and rivaled in complexity only by the nuances of the words exploding from the right side of her crooked mouth. Joanna's voice itself transcends a traditional timeline by sounding both like a chirping child and a squeaky old woman and more surprisingly, sounding both like the strangest and most beautiful noises ever produced.
I was sure that after a couple stellar singles from "Milk Eyed Mender" her fingers would surely tire... but she instead proclaimed "We're going to play the new album now" and called a cohort of collegues onto stage to do just that. Embellished by arrangements from legendary composer Van Dyke Parks, the live performance of the album boasted focused instrumentation that made much more sense with the warmth of live bodies than the cold of the studio recording. And who would have guess that a harp would be so effectively complimented by a walking banjo and vulnerable performances from an accordion and musical saw? The collective opus was as personal as it was grand and lifted Joanna's strange sensibility to a level of creative genius that I trust will flourish in future symphonies.