All right, here's my take on the music I heard at the Festival of Faith and Music. I'd love to hear others' takes as well.
First, let me note that there was far more happening musically than I was able to take in. There were, for instance, various Asthmatic Kitty folks other than Sufjan Stevens (Danielson Familye, Half-Handed Cloud) milling about, and they may or may not have performed music at some point. If they did, I didn't see it. I also missed The Psalters, and I would have enjoyed seeing them. But here is who I did see:
-- Anathallo -- I don' t know much about Anathallo. They were on a Paste sampler a while back, and I was underwhelmed. I haven't heard any of their albums. But I quite enjoyed their performance Friday night. There were, at various points, about twenty people onstage, most of them members of the Central Michigan University brass ensemble. Most of the members of Anathallo proper sang, and their harmonies were lovely. The songs themselves were quite unconventional -- no verse-verse-chorus structures here -- and for the most part flowed seamlessly. At times the transitions were a little too abrupt for me, but the music surprised me at every turn, and they made great use of the whisper-to-a-wall-of-noise approach so prevalent in post-rock music today. Two or three guys ran energetically about, playing percussion, and one guy derived great pleasure by arching his back, swinging with all his might, and thwacking a very large gong. Lean into it, dude. I was impressed, and I'll certainly be seeking out more of Anathallo's music.
-- Sufjan Stevens -- I don't know. I enjoyed the concert on some levels, but I tire of all the busyness, both with the onstage props and in the music. I've seen Sufjan four times in the last couple years, and maybe I'm just feeling burned out. But I'd bet any amount of money that he's feeling burned out. You can hear it in the frayed vocals, the high notes that he can't quite hit these days, and in some of the dispirited between-song commentary. Take a break, guy. This was the last show of what had been a long, worldwide tour for Sufjan. He played for more than two hours -- the longest show he'd ever played, or so he claimed. And, to be fair, there were many wonderful moments. I love Sufjan's music, and he played a wide selection of material from Michigan, Seven Swans, and Illinois, as well as a couple surprise songs from the Christmas album and his NPR radio appearance. It's great stuff. I wrote about why Sufjan's Illinois album was the best album of 2005 in Paste Magazine, and I'd gladly do it again. But there was an element of forced frivolity in the concert Friday night that honestly left me slightly depressed. There is such a thing as trying too hard. And, so in spite of all the inflatable Santa and Superman dolls that were being batted around in the audience, contributing to what I suppose is spontaneous hilarity on a Christian college campus, I felt a little sad. I greatly preferred Sufjan two years ago at this same conference -- quiet, subdued, almost beatific, making hushed music that made me want to do cartwheels because it was so beautiful and transcendent.
Liz Janes, Son Lux -- After the Anathallo/Sufjan concert, most folks went to watch the Danielson Familye documentary. A couple hundred folks, including me, wandered over to the chapel, and heard some more music. Liz Janes, who is Asthmatic Kitty label head Michael Kauffman's wife, didn't move a whole lot, strummed her acoustic guitar (and occasional ukelele), and simply wowed me with her voice and her songs. There was a sweetness about her demeanor that reminded me of Victoria Williams. She sang the old Jesus Freak song "I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table," and followed that up with a cover of The Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation." She sang original worship songs. She sang Weezer covers. She did an a capella, soulful field holler thing that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. She was, in a word, great.
Son Lux is the nom de mope of a guy named Ryan Lott, who was the winner of Calvin's Bandspotting contest. I liked Ryan’s songs a great deal when I heard them as part of the contest, and I liked them a great deal when I heard them live. Ryan is apparently the kind of guy who records his tortured songs in the privacy of his bedroom. And Friday night was his first live performance, at least under his Son Lux moniker. And he did just fine. Better than fine. His lyrics are simple and direct, but his piano work, tape loops, and electronica blips and beeps add great depth, and his angst-filled vocals remind me quite a bit of Thom Yorke from Radiohead. You can check out Ryan’s music right here. I think you’ll be impressed.
I missed Sarah Masen, who followed Ryan’s set. By that point it was midnight, I was operating on three hours of sleep, and the old, gnarled body was starting to shut down. Sarah (whose name I spaced on both times I encountered her in person over the course of the weekend; she’s got to suspect not only an old, gnarled body, but encroaching senility) is a very talented singer and songwriter, and I’m sorry I missed her performance. I’m hoping that she covered Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” as I’ve seen her do in the past. But someone else will need to comment on Sarah’s performance.
Neko Case/Emmylou Harris -- Saturday was filled with workshops and artist interviews (Sufjan, Neko Case, Emmylou Harris). The only music I heard was Saturday night, when Neko and Emmylou performed before a large crowd at the Calvin Fieldhouse. There were several fun non-musical moments at the gym-turned-concert-hall (the best was finding out that the pleasant, middle-aged guy I’d been chatting with for half an hour was Jim Wallis’s brother), but at 8:00 the lights dimmed (these Calvin folks are punctual; they have a thing or two to teach the rest of the world), and Neko came onstage and rocked the (field)house.
Neko, for the record, is deceptive. She sounds like Tammy Wynette, but she writes songs like Joni Mitchell. No cliched, heartaches-by-the number approach for this woman. She has a big, big powerhouse of a voice, her songs resonate on multiple levels, and she can kick out the jams with the best rock band. In short, she was fabulous, the musical highlight of the weekend for me.
Then, after a short break, Emmylou came on stage. And after about five minutes, I was shaking my head, realizing that I was a part of some sort of mythical concert pairing that seemed too impossibly good to be true: Neko and Emmylou on the same stage on the same night. Are you kidding me? I’ve seen Emmylou a number of times down through the years. But she was better – her voice surer and stronger, her band the perfect complement to that sometimes fragile voice – than I’ve ever seen her before. She performed songs from throughout her long career, with the songs perhaps slightly skewed toward the Wrecking Ball, Red Dirt Girl, and Stumble Into Grace albums. But there were some delightful surprises – a superb cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” (with a slight change in the lyrics to accommodate the Christian audience; I felt like I could cry, indeed :-)), a beautiful rendition of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” and a stunning a capella version of the old country gospel standard “Bright Morning Stars” that closed the concert.
It was a fitting ending to a wonderful day, and a wonderful weekend. I can’t wait to return. Can we do this again? Maybe next week?