It was good to finally get to see Radiohead last night. That’s a big drop in the bucket list.
OK, it wasn’t really Radiohead. Briars of North America are a very close facsimile, though. Uneasy harmonies? Check. Tricky metrics? Doublecheck. An omnipresent sense of angst and longing, with vocals that mimic Thom Yorke most of the time? Check, check, check. But their sound is vastly more organic, as one audience member put it. His vastly more articulate friend nailed what they’re about: “Organic Whole Foods free range chicken Radiohead.”
Briars of North America switch out the icy glitchiness for a moody resonance that’s both more acoustic and more minimalist, with the occasional rainy-day Americana-influenced theme. They’re a talented bunch. Gideon Crevoshay switched between organ, piano and a mixer; Jeremy Thal moved effortlessly between acoustic and electric guitars and french horn. Bassist Greg Chudzik alternated between stark bowing on upright and a slow, elegant, terse pulse on his Fender. And their pianist switched to accordion and then played banjo on the most folk-influenced numbers, including the best song in their relatively brief, forty-minute set, a steadily strolling, melancholy ballad.
This was a multimedia concert. While the band played, a series of metaphorically-charged multiple-exposure projections by Ryan Murdock flashed across the screen above the stage. According to Crevoshay, many of them were taken from declassified spy agency footage. Images of war, surveillance activity and ominous nature imagery alluded to eco-disaster, violence against women and Wall Street greed, but in softer focus than the general consensus among New Yorkers since Inauguration Day. Crevoshay acknowledged those perils, cautiously, limiting his commentary to the argument that if there’s ever been a time to make art, this is the moment.
Port St. Willow drummer Tommy Crane led his trio through a hypnotic set of rather epic, math-y stoner krautrock to a different set of projections by Tracy Maurice. A combative ballet between a man and a woman gave way quickly to magnified raindrops and fast-forward ice crystals. “Where’s the beach ball?” one wag in the crowd wanted to know.
“I feel like I’m inside a beach ball,” the guy next to him replied. To their infinite credit, keyboardists Eliot Krimsky and Colin Killalea played almost all of their endlessly shifting, loopy arpeggios live rather than stashing them away in a sequencer or a pedal like so many other bands would have done. Playing the same rapidfire broken chords over and over and keeping everything tight is hard work, and these guys made it look easy, varying their textures from dry and keening, to woozy and warpy, to echoey electric piano and calm rivulets of organ.
Crane is a subtle but colorful drummer, shifting his shades as artfully as his bandmates, occasionally flavoring the sonic expanse with echoey syndrum accents and riffs. His ride cymbal was a wreck, with big rip in the side, but the muted effect it provided was probably a deliberate choice. And he really felt the room, keeping the thump on his kickdrum low in the mix. At the end of the set, he switched to keys and showed off a similar command through a surreal, starry boudoir theme and then a warm, gently tectonic outro behind the closing credits.
All this made for a welcome escape from the events of the past two weeks…and raised questions like whether or not we should be indulging ourselves in this kind of escapism. There’s an argument that doing so is transgressive. After all, the Swamp Cabinet would much prefer that we work for them, for no pay, and spend any free time we have watching Fox News and praying in the Christian church of their choice rather than contemplating anything that might encourage the promise of greater comfort. Trouble is, it may take more than just making art and then drifting off into it to sidestep those dangers.
These free atrium concerts are addictive. For a similar if much more antique kind of contemplative escapism, the New Orford String Quartet play works by Beethoven and R. Murray Schafer on Feb 9 at 7:30 PM. Enter on Broadway just north of 62nd; the earlier you get there (the classical shows here are a huge hit with the locals), the better.