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It was about 1:30 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning in the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden, just as the first movement of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports was reaching a tentative crescendo, when some poor sap accidentally kicked a glass bottle down the stairs, temporarily hijacking the 26-hour Bang on a Can Marathon.
While the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ six-piece ensemble emoted with a mournful piano backed by cello, stand-up bass, vibes, guitar, and keyboard, suddenly you heard an anticipatory yelp of horror, followed by a few bounces down the marble steps (plink, plink), and a final, obliterating plisssh. Soon another instrument joined the fray—the crack of a security dude’s walkie-talkie. Thus is the peril of playing ambient music live.
The music was often fascinating: Percussionist Steven Schick had played a noisy piece titled The Anvil Chorus—featuring four hubcaps, five kick-drums of varying size, and a healthy clutch of pipes and blocks—on those steps just an hour earlier. But the crowd is the real attraction at the two-decade-old annual marathon thrown by Bang on a Can, which fields touring ensembles, commissions new works, and sires gala events like this one. Appropriately, the Winter Garden resembles an extravagant airport, with the giant greenhouse sunroof and goofy palm trees towering overhead, and folks sleeping in their clothes—some with enough gear to qualify as luggage—on the floor, in corners, on the steps. Several hundred people, awake or not, had gathered for the live resurrection of Eno’s 1978 elegant lullaby; a few big shots (Yo La Tengo, Dälek, the Books) were on the Marathon’s bill (running from 8 p.m. Saturday to 10 p.m. Sunday), but the main attractions were the compositions themselves, and Airports was the highlight. Verily, it was beautiful, and best enjoyed while lying flat on your back and staring straight up, through the palm trees and the sunroof to the deep night outside, with the neighboring, towering buildings overhead appearing to curve inward around you as breathy keyboards slowly gave way to meandering clarinet.
My goal was to stay till sunrise—I came close. Argentinian loop-folk sorceress Juana Molina makes excellent Music to Try to Fall Asleep To. The Hartt Bass Band—a pianist, a percussionist pounding on a wood block with mallets, and eight double-bassists—wailed away for a while. Steven Schick showed up twice more, leading his collective red fish blue fish, and then taking another solo turn with a siren-esque hand-cranked instrument that appropriately resembled a coffee grinder. But by the time the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, which rolled here all the way from Michigan, was artfully bashing through Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, it was time to bail. I staggered outside at 5:30 a.m. or so, just in time to witness a gentleman demurely urinating into the Hudson River. I’m wide awake; it’s morning.
(Sweet transition ahead.)
“I’m wide awake—it’s morning!” Conor Oberst screamed, at the violent and hilarious conclusion to Bright Eyes’ seven-day Town Hall run, beating “Road to Joy” into oblivion with, like, 50 people onstage in rumbling atonal freak-out mode, masturbatory but still highly amusing, polishing knobs on the Titanic. Resplendent in a sharp white suit and shoulder-length Southern-rock hair, Conor thrashed about, joining bluegrass badass David Rawlings in smashing a foot-high toy piano into smithereens, and tearing the lovely bouquet tied to his microphone stand apart so as to angrily fling flowers into the crowd.
Thanks for the metaphors, Conor.
Finally, Friday night’s show felt like the Cathartic Event we’d hoped for. All week we’d read the breathless reports on the first six shows, each with its own super- to somewhat-famous special guest. Lou Reed! Norah Jones! Jenny Lewis! Steve Earle! Ben Gibbard! (Does Ben Gibbard’s name with an exclamation point after it feel strange to anyone else?!) This being the final night, the electrifying conclusion, certainly Conor would’ve saved his best surprise for last! Who could it be? Bowie? Springsteen? Dylan? Jesus?
Ladies and gentlemen, Ron Sexsmith!
You could almost hear the loser Price Is Right music playing, even through the very polite applause. Poor Ron. He doesn’t deserve this. He’s a fine, underappreciated dude, the Canadian Roy Orbison, perhaps the archetypical to-know-him-is-to-love-him singer-songwriter. And his four-song set, splitting the nearly two-hour affair neatly in half, was lovely, his subtly booming voice better suited to Town Hall’s expert acoustics than Conor’s much improved but still reliably wobbly moans. “Foolproof” was especially splendid, slow, and stately, Ron augmented by lovely piano and trumpet as Conor looked on very, very, very earnestly and lovingly, a conspicuous way to instruct the crowd to do the same.
Supplying the piano and trumpet was no fucking problem. Conor’s 12-strong backing band—themselves resplendent in all white—included a six-piece string section (totally unnecessary) and two drummers (very necessary, given that the dominant half was Sleater-Kinney luminary Janet Weiss, who pounded through allegedly raucous rockers and occasionally flaccid ballads alike with a mesmerizing nonchalance). We’re living in the age of vaguely indie-signifying bands wielding enormous power—giant venues, multi-night residencies, overstuffed ensembles. From Sufjan Stevens to the National to the Arcade Fire, it’s the age of glorious excess, and only rarely was Bright Eyes’ contribution overwhelmingly overblown.
Sure, the string section was ridiculous— “Four Winds,” the catchiest and most propulsive of the ELO-meets-Wilco rock tunes Conor’s recently favored, benefited tremendously when the orchestra consisted solely of adorable violinist Anton Patzner, happily sawing away. But most other tunes on Bright Eyes’ new Cassadaga came off equally well, especially “Make a Plan to Love Me,” a gooey ballad with a nonetheless gorgeous bridge, Janet expertly pitching in on the bah-bah-bah harmonies. Over the course of his nearly decade-long cultural ascent, Conor’s unleashed a few terrible and shrill debacles (“When the President Talks to God” being the worst song of the past five years), but none of those crashed this party, where only “Lime Tree” was a true dud, and that merely due to dullness. (Incidentally, during “Lime Tree,” Conor was engulfed in Pentecostal candlelight projected on the back wall, and by an actual candle, even. Up in the balcony sat a dude with an overhead projector who handled all the visuals manually, dumping food coloring into a glass of water and blowing into it with a straw, making live-action crayon drawings with a little kid, busting out an Etch A Sketch, etc. A very pleasing analog approach.)
The whole show teetered on the edge of pompous, overserious self-absorption, but lighthearted stuff like that helped Conor’s cause tremendously. As did the rumbling atonal freak-out finale, bodies and tambourines and violin bows flying everywhere. Janet was almost impaled by a keytar. Spoon’s Britt Daniel—another special guest, yes, but only for a rushed and weak two-song encore—stood in a far corner, impassively tapping on a tambourine. And though Conor’s flower-whipping, piano-smashing tirade was the focal point, the true epicenter was bluegrass queen Gillian Welch, who along with piano-smashing accomplice David Rawlings served as our opening act. (“Throw Me a Rope,” hopefully bound for her next album, is a haunting and mellow monster.) Gillian’s stage presence is, to put it mildly, a great deal calmer and quieter than Conor’s, but she did her best to fit in during the finale, hopping around nervously in her red dress and whacking a pair of conga drums quasi-rhythmically. She looked hilarious. She’d also just played an hour-long set at a sizable Times Square venue for seven straight days. Conor wields his tremendous power awkwardly at times, but his heart’s in the right place, and everyone in Town Hall was in the right place too.