Originally Published at The Blue Indian on September 27, 2010.
We settled into the back pew of Saint Joseph’s AME Zion on a Friday night quite aware that we were in what used to be used as explicitly sacred space. What I’m not sure we immediately realized, but understood soon enough was that we were there for some sort of revival.
Walking into an empty sanctuary, my eyes sweepingly moved from the elaborate crown molding and ceiling installation to the old balcony hanging close and low enough for the preacher to receive some of the overflow: either rote, fanned air or spontaneous, dripping Hallelujahs! They panned down to the anachronistic contraptions cluttering the stage and the wires pouring into each and every of the 46 channels of the house soundboard. Then they wandered around what, on this occasion, is a congregation made up of hipsters, no more or less distracting than the usual Sunday gang, though with get-up constituted of rimmed glasses, beards, and half-sleeve tats rather than pin-striped suits and ornate hats. An odd “Who’s Who.” Notably, but not exhaustively, filled with Mountain Goats and Rosebuds. A vast array of the NC Triangle’s best, looking oddly out of place, not because of the ecclesial surroundings, but rather because of their bizarre idleness. A Friday-night sabbatical.
Finally, hosts/cogs/chief kids-in-the-candy-store, members of avante-folk group Megafaun, took the stage to an anticipatory applause and then sheer, holy silence. The intro song was a fitting tone-setter for the night. Armed with a washboard and empty hands made for clapping, the Cook brothers and Joe Westerlund interpreted the old Green Sally Up for new ears. That was to be a theme for the night: interpretation. Alluded to and matched only by the other pervading theme: collaboration. Mumbling, self-deprecating, and assuredly sober, de facto emcee Brad Cook mentioned of the set of songs taken from the box set of Americana standards and obscurities compiled by Alan Lomax, “We found these songs together. We want to share them with you together. Here’s how we interpret them.”
As the night wound on, the backing band, Fight The Big Bull, from Richmond VA, not only textured what the Cooks had in mind, but created an entirely new world. And praise the Lord that they did, because this realm featured some truly special moments and characters. We saw Bon Iver front man, Justin Vernon (just “Vern” that night…) transfigured before our eyes: from brooding cabin-fevered freak-folker to bolo-tied, Most-Reverend-Al-Green, tambourine man in numbers like Calvary and I Want Jesus to Walk With Me. We witnessed guest Sharon Van Etten offering her sweetly eerie take on the onomatopoetic nursery rhymes of Almeda Riddle, reminiscent of Natalie Merchant's handling of Woody Guthrie’s set on the Mermaid Avenue discs. She pulled and tugged at her black slip dress until the bawdy Coll Water Blues slid throughout the late summer evening. The two combined for a Book of Revelation recounting in Tribulations that yowled truthful tales of dragons and blood baths in a familiar David Rawlings/Gillian Welch idiom.
The climax of the night was one the cool crowd seemed not ready or fully equipped to embrace. What grew to a critical mass of thirteen musicians on stage at one time lead the “congregation” in shape-note singing and evoked claps, stomps, hallelujahs, and aisle-dancing. Between the band’s extensive brass section, lead by a spectacular muted-trumpet and the singular percussive madness of Westerlund’s seemingly bottomless box of noisemaking accoutrements, unwarned, Mardi Gras (or maybe Pentecost) fell upon Durham, North Carolina.
But, just when our tongues were loosed, it was over. They were gone. Or so it seemed, until a last-gasp encore yielded a choired reprise of another group of “Northerners attempting a song about the South”: Robbie Robertson’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
Though, perhaps the most touching moments of the night weren’t the ethereal or transportive performance moments (which were bestowed in spades), but rather the also abundant, candidly earnest glances and smirks between the players; telling in their incredulity and unadulterated joy. They spoke of a certain danger (“is this happening?”), but more so of surging delight (“this is really happening!”).
I am thankful to have taken all of this in: the sacred intimacy furnished by the hardwood pews to the blessed verity of the sounds that swept through the aisles and filtered up to the balcony.