Singer and sound sculptor Lesley Flanigan headlined at National Sawdust Friday night with the epic title track to her new ep, Hedera. Onstage, depending on the piece she’s creating, sometimes she ends up doing a floor ballet of sorts, a constant, rigorously physical dialogue with the mixer and speakers and mics positioned around her. This was not one of those situations. On her knees, brow knitted, almost motionless, she switched on an old, broken tape recorder, amplified to the rafters, and launched into the piece..
On album, and to an extent on the new ep, Flanigan’s sonic creations often have a dreamy quality. Not so at this performance. The sound was LOUD. National Sawdust has banks of custom-designed speakers positioned way up in the ceiling- think Issue Project Room multiplied by a factor of ten. This amplified both the distant menace of the mechanical loop as well as the dichotomy between that and Flanigan’s bright, resonant vocals. In the studio, she’s a strong and nuanced singer, with an unadorned, pure pitch: she was even stronger here. Adding one layer of vocals after another, she built a many-faceted sonic Rothko, up to a sudden moment of insistent angst. The effect was viscerally chilling. The recorded version seems to reach a calm resolution; this performance was more ambiguous and unsettling.
The opening acts were a mixed bag. Singer Daisy Press and keyboardist Nick Hallett joined forces for a trio of Hildegard Von Binghen songs, which they reinvented as starlit, twinkling art-rock. Hallet supplied a kaleidoscope of deep-space textures and baroque-pop loops for Press to soar over. There was an allusively Middle Eastern quality to her ripe, wounded soprano, channeling buttery, lascivious allusions in Latin: a cantor or a muezzin might have sounded much the same around 1150 AD. Getting to hear Flanigan and Press back to back was a rare treat: the former gets credit for having the guts to follow the latter on the bill.
Turntablist Maria Chavez built a pastiche out of spoken word albums; the only thing missing was “Number nine, number nine, number nine.” There was a joke about noisy neighbors that drew some chuckles, otherwise, it could have gone on for half as long and nobody would have suffered. Or maybe you just had to be 420ing a little early to appreciate it.
As for the night’s first act, C. Spencer Yeh, it took nerve to give the crowd a fat, raised middle finger for as long as he did. Puckering up and running his vocal pop-pops through a mixer, he first created a rain-on-the-roof tableau that suddenly became just a single stream of liquid. That was hilarious, and foreshadowed the rest of his act. That quickly became the kid upstairs at 6 AM bouncing the basketball on your ceiling. Over. And. Over. Again. And then farting noises. Self-indulgent? Totally. Puerile? Uh huh. Pure punk rock? No doubt. Yeh gets props for being fearless, but be aware that if he’s on the bill, you may be subjected to something like this.