Saturday, September 24
Better than: More than a few ’90s Dead shows I could mention.
Set openers don’t get much more inviting than “Real Slow,” a slyly seductive scene setter wherein “people come from miles just to take a seat and watch the show.” Better yet, North Carolina-based Megafaun expanded upon their loping call to this intimately communal cultural campfire in a particularly bewitching way, subtly accelerating and decelerating the tune’s heady midtempo roll with droning guitars. And it just kept getting better during Saturday night on Houston Street, with the quartet offering a sort of sweet, Southern post-jamband succor against the knucklehead parade under way right outside the door.
No strangers to the pleasures of either musique concrète or free jazz, the Durham, North Carolina-based quartet opt for old-fashioned emotional honesty on their eponymous fourth album, whose inclusive-Americana vibe evokes the Dead’s American Beauty, Phish’s Billy Breathes, and other early-’70s country-rock revivalists of recent vintage (San Diego’s Donkeys, upstate’s the Duke and the King). But Megafaun possesses a shambolic charm all its own. Bandmember brothers Phil and Brad Cook’s earnest introduction of opening act Doug Paisley, a quietly devastating country singer, indicated their intentions no less than the grinning experimentalism that soon revealed itself in the electronic interventions and playful hand-percussion polyrhythms of “These Words.”
Lacking the calculated anticharisma of a Jeff Tweedy or the virtuosic authority of a Trey Anastasio, Megafaun compensates with an up-with-weirdos bonhomie. (New bassist Nick Sanborn turns out to be a valuable addition, too.) “This could be something of a stunt, but it’s not,” Phil Cook said by way of introducing drummer Joe Westerlund’s vocal showcase. “It’s a very honest sentiment. Westerlund grabbed a guitar and sang “Second Friend” (Poco meets Bread) as the other three cozied up around a single mike, bluegrass style. Westerlund is otherwise Megafaun’s wild card; a shaggy, bearded Dennis Wilson sort of wild card.
And Westerlund turned out to be just what the doctor ordered when things went weirdly askew about two-thirds in. After concluding “Kill the Horns,” which Phil Cook introduced accurately as “the darkest tune we have in our set,” Cook went off on a yapping audience member in a thoroughly uncool—and utterly refreshing—way because, well, “sometimes shit just has to be called out.” When the boogie-ing “Carolina Days” didn’t restore the vibe, Westerlund jumped out from behind his drums to improvise a cockamamie version of “Wild Thing” that evolved into the Phish-lite prog-grass surrealism of “Eagle.” Disorder temporarily restored.
Megafaun have come a long way from the scrappy trio I saw opening for Akron/Family a few years ago. They seem like pretty happy guys, and yet dark songs like “Get Right,” with its “broken-heart stories and their broken-heart metaphors,” and how closer “Lazy Suicide” (with jolly audience sing-along) tend to predominate, for better or worse, at the expense of the gibbering electronics, unexpected mood shifts, and, especially, often remarkable horn arrangements (especially those by Matt White of the terrific Richmond, Virginia, jazz group Fight the Big Bull) heard on their albums. But you get the feeling there’ll be plenty of time for all that and more as Megafaun inevitably finds its audience—and vice versa—because they certainly deserve it.
Critical bias: Their publicist bought me a beer during the show, which I immediately spilled all over my arm while wishing they played and sung just a tad tighter.
Overheard: “Play something to make my heart melt!”
Random notebook dump: I’m sure I’m not the first to note that Brad Cook looks a heck of a lot like Al Franken with a banjo.
Kill the Horns