Friday, March 15, 2013
Bottom of the Hill
Better than: Your class field trip to the symphony
Everyone looks for certain things in a show. Maybe you want to see extreme technical skill, or perhaps showmanship and spectacle are more your thing. There's also dancing, singing along to a favorite song, or a simple 'good times' ambiance. Black Prairie can certainly deliver all these different things to an audience, but Friday at the Bottom of the Hill the group offered something completely unexpected. It's just not everyday you leave a show thinking, 'I actually learned something tonight.'
The evening's lessons all stem primarily from Black Prairie's choice of music. This six-person ensemble from Portland -- featuring three members of Portland's more famous indie band the Decemberists -- brings an orchestral approach to roots music. Call it folsky, country-esque, bluegrass-like; but there is an awful lot of syncopation in Black Prairie tunes, like you might find in a classical outfit. The song structures are straight-up jazz -- open solo sections where musicians trade off melodies with one another, or big, swooping seven-minute tunes that surprise a listener as they bounce between quite different sections. If you ever sat in a music class of any type, there will be some aspect of Black Prairie that immediately has you recalling textbooks of yore.
This is only the beginning. Chris Funk is known for being a multi-instrumentalist, but in the first seven tunes this night he's already used four different instruments -- and the banjo is the only one that's immediately recognizeable. Funk transitions seemlessly between that, the autoharp (looks like a washboard with strings, sounds like a high-octave guitar with endless sustain) and a marxophone (similar looking, but held perpindicular to the ground with one hand operating keys). None of these are just for show; rather they all add unique sonic layers to a band that performs an awful lot of instrumentals. Black Prairie played 19 songs in total, not counting three performed with opener Ashleigh Lynn before the official "set." Ten tracks were entirely instrumental.
Funk spends most of his night on something that's easy to mistake for a slide guitar, but is actually called a Dobro. He dons thimble-like finger covers and does his most impressive work here. He somehow pulls sounds from it that at times evoke soaring electronic chords and at other moments stand toe-to-toe with the guitar in terms of picking melodies. It'd be easy to spend the entire set staring at him as he's demostrates his handle on all these unique instruments. But Funk is also the closest thing to an emcee the band has. As he introduces songs, Funk explains the inspiration for "For the Love of John Hartland" ("a man who could clog, play fiddle, banjo, and smoke pot all at the same time"), and even provides a little life lesson after explaining Romani music. It's gypsy style, and Black Prairie wanted to play their Romani instrumental before taking a pre-encore break. Funk must've just gotten swept up in the moment, saying this music embodies, "what's important in life: family, getting drunk, having fun, and music."
Funk is dynamic, but the rest of the Black Prairie earns the spotlight, too. They introduce Jon Neufeld (guitarist) as the best picker west of the Mississippi, and his work on "Back Alley" is so impressive you're embarrassed to only learn about him now. Accordion(ist?) Jenny Conlee, also recognizeable from playing next to Colin Meloy, shows off the full range of her instrument. Black Prairie incorporates it into waltzes, tangos, and even true-hesher tunes on top of more traditional useage.
And if not watching Funk, it'd be equally as easy to fixate on Annalisa Tornfelt, front and center as the lead singer. Even though she doesn't unleash it every song, her voice is powerful, a relaxed alto with a somewhat smoky quality (whether that's truly there or just an interpretation because of the band's style of music, we're not sure). When she's not at the mic, she's equally adept at the violin, the stroh-violin (take the horn of a trumpet and attach to a violin, viola! Used on "Tango Oscuro") and the faux-Nyckelharpa (faked using a violin on this evening, but it's an obscure Swedish harp-violin crossbreed used on "Jump Up Jon").
For now, the show at the Bottom of the Hill was still advertised as "Black Prairie, featuring members of The Decemberists." The wrapped records for sale have a sticker stating the same thing. But as Black Prairie continues playing more shows -- they didn't tour following their first LP, but last fall's A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart got them on stage -- this distinction should slowly fade away. Black Prairie is an act worth learning about on their own merit. They've been to NPR's Tiny Desk, and they'll play their first late-night gig this week (Leno on Tuesday). Afterwards, maybe they can update the tour promos once and for all.
The inevitable Decemberists comparison: After the show I was talking to a friend about all the items I genuinely didn't know before and what an unusual feeling it was. She didn't hesitate, "At a Black Prairie show you get a music lesson, at a Decemberists show it's more vocabulary."
Real, genuine heshers: On at least two occasions throughout the night, Funk referenced heshers while introducing songs. It's a string ensemble and they don't do it on every track, but Black Prairie could absolutely be a passable string-metal band. "Ostinatio Del Caminito" shows off the formula -- a more prominent (almost brooding) bass line, lots of staccato riffs where even the drumkit hits them in unison with the violin and guitar, and then a section where things can open up with a bit of cymbal. Funk dedicated one of those to Ted Nugent, and the Nuge would've been proud.
The encore to end all encores: This was probably the last show where you'd expect to end the evening on a Led Zeppelin cover. But there it was, Neufeld strumming a distinctive intro and Tornfelt being a star in her best Robert Plant. "The Song Remains The Same" is not the most hesher-friendly Zeppelin tune, but everyone was certainly head-banging as the drums kicked up the tempo to close the night.