Last night at the beautifully renovated San Damiano Mission in Williamsburg, Anna & Elizabeth joined their distinctive voices in a very colorful patchwork quilt of songs from across the centuries. Cleek Schrey, a connoisseur of little-known vintage fiddle tunes, played lilting solo pieces in odd tempos when he wasn’t sitting at the organ or the piano. Timo Andres unveiled a hypnotic new solo piano diptych awash in both Glassine echo effects and mystical Messiaenic close harmonies. And at the end, Anna Roberts-Gevalt led a packed house in a haunting, rapturously rising and falling singalong of the blues-infused African-American Virginia spiritual, Oh Lord Don’t Let Me Die in the Storm.
It was a night of envelopingly beautiful, weird Americana. On the surface, pairing oldtime folk tunes and some pre-Americana with indie classical could have opened a Pandora’s box of ridiculous segues. That this bill actually worked testifies to how much outside-the-box creativity went into it. Part of the explanation is simply how some things eventually get so old that they become new again. There’s a lot of centuries-old music that sounds absolutely avant garde, and there was some of that on this bill. For example, while there was no obvious cross-pollination between the subtly shifting cells of Andres’ piano piece and the cleverly rhythmic permutations of Schrey’s solo numbers, it was a reminder how musicians from every time period use a lot of the same devices.
There were also a handful of country gospel and Appalachian folik tunes on the bill. You could have heard a pin drop when Elizabeth LaPrelle reached for the rafters with her signature plaintive, rustic, high-midrange-lonesome wail in a solo a-cappella number. Standing in between the front pews, Roberts-Gevalt clog-danced a swinging beat and sang in perfect time, accompanied by Schrey and viola da gamba player Liam Byrne, who anchored much of the night’s material with a low, ambered, lushly bowed resonance.
Joined by a guest baritone singer, Anna & Elizabeth sang a fetchingly waltzing take of the hymn I Hear a Voice Calling. The night began with a hypnotic take of what sounded like an old Virginia reel played solo on bagpipe, a gentle reminder for the faithful to take their seats. And Anna & Elizabeth brought crankies! Each singer slowly cranked a big wooden box to unscroll a colorfully detailed portrait of the events in the other’s song. LaPrelle delivered a long, extremely detailed, ultimately pretty grim 18th century account of a shipwreck, and Roberts-Gevalt intoned a hazy nocturnal Nova Scotia lament that morphed into droning spectral string music. Anna & Elizabeth are off on European tour momentarily: lucky Lithuanians can catch them at the Keistuoliy Theatre in Vilnius on Oct 21 at 7:30 PM.