Tom Brosseau is a fascinating man — tall, thin and very quiet and from watching him perform a couple of his songs his demeanour was intriguing, seeming someone that you want to find out more about, speak to and find out some background on. But his lonesome performance, just him and his guitar, his stillness and the fact he didn’t address the crowd at all throughout the show, his soft, fragile songs, all of these grew to build a picture over time meaning by the end of the set he’d left me with a fantastic ideal I was fine to hold on to and savour.
His set began quietly and incredibly understatedly, big Tom on stage picking away carefully but quietly at his amplified acoustic guitar, with almost an entire room-full of conversation continuing. Slowly though a majority of people started to pay attention to the John Fahey-like southern blues pickings, realising that he probably wasn’t just tuning, and after a short while his presence held an almost roboticly stagnant position at the front of the stage, and he began to sing his first song.
Brosseau’s work is quaint and traditional southern American music, with roots in the bluegrass and folk music of the early decades ofthe twentieth century. His consise songs were loosely structured and performed, the joy of a one-man show, and they conjured up images of the man learning guitar and his style of song from his elders, sitting on his land and commenting with his music on the world he watched in front of him.
His slight frame and minimal interaction send different signals to the confidence that lies behind the music.
The bluesy ballads that the artist’s fingers worked away at wrought at a tenderness of mood and performance which his voice solidified, his high-end range strong in clarity and tone but impressive in its strength within its reservedness. His slight frame and minimal interaction send different signals to the confidence that lies behind the music, or the confidence that the music imbues him with — the final song of Brosseau’s set closed with several verses sung a capella before ending to rapturous applause, which even brought the man out of his silence away from the songs, thanking the crowd before leaving the stage.
New York’s Grizzly Bear struck a few chords which continued the mood from Brosseau’s set, both often giving off a beautiful sense of peacefulness and calm, but the headline act were in many ways a different concept all together. For a start they are a four-piece band, and accordingly the scale of the pieces and the instrumentation involved in their performance is increased, but even more than usual, Grizzly Bear take a decidedly experimental approach. Only one of the group’s members stuck to one instrument, but he also sang, the group all taking on various vocal duties at different points. The floor and other surfaces were littered with a variety of effects pedals, electronic equipment and acoustic instruments — the usual range of guitars plus a clarinet, flute and even an auto-harp.
The tones that the guitars found as well as those offered by instruments like the clarinet formed lush accompaniments.
The band’s music is often a decidedly pleasant folky guitar band sound, with the light vocals, backed and often high-end, creating lilting moods, but this description doesn’t do the band any justice at all. Their sound is quite unique when in this mood — the guitars not always sounding like guitars at all, the drummer sampling his rim-shots and making rythmic vocal patterns in the background, the lead melodies perhaps hushed, perhaps soaring, the rhythms maybe within straightforward time-signiatures but the riffs playing up to the each of the beats, and the drum kit — snare and toms — making more interesting beats than you feel should be possible in its limited size. The songs also had the ability to leap and lurch into a much more epic racket, generally still on the more pleasant side of noise but loud and nonetheless pulsating. The quiet moments pared down to intense vocal harmonies and the electronic and instrumental experimentation — singing through headphones, effected woodwind etc — which took songs in fascinating directions and offered some visually, as well as aurally stimulating nuances. The tones that the guitars found as well as those offered by instruments like the clarinet (which incidently gave a distinct feel of Sandro Perri’s new Polmo Polpo live act — something also referenced in the similarity of top-end vocal offered by Tom Brosseau, only with tonight’s performer having a Southern edge) formed lush accompaniments, the different playings culminating in something wholly interesting and very engaging.
At their core, Grizzly Bear’s songs are ballads and lo-fi indie songs but with the group’s passion and striving to develop things further and just do things a little differently they come alive and grow away from over-populated musical areas onto a new kind of ground. Their critically acclaimed new Yellow House album is available now on Warp.