Monday, September 24, 2012

Separate and Unequal Parts: Walker Art Center's 802 Tour combines genres, talented musicians, but blend falls short

It’s not every day you come across a Phantom of the Opera-meets-Appalachia performance, but that’s what arrived at the Walker Art Center last week. Unfortunately, the sum of this eclectic mix wasn’t quite as wonderful as each of its parts.
The 802 Tour, billed by the Walker Art Center as a bluegrassy mixed-genre band, opened their show last weekend strongly with a few Southern folk tunes. One of particular beauty lifted its material straight out of the biblical chapter of Revelation, imbuing that eerie text with a homespun, achy tenderness.
Despite this promising start, the show quickly veered downhill as the musicians branched out from their twangy roots into more experimental pastures, with a particular focus on ‘squeaky door’ contemporary classical piano pieces.
Don’t get me wrong. I love classical music. I will see the Minnesota Orchestra play until kingdom come. But one can only endure so much triple handed piano-synth paired with mopey, drunken, raspy stanzas until it’s time for a mood shift.
802’s violist Nadia Sirota was definitely the star of the show, searing through her instrument with a red-hot bow and a gorgeous tone. I would love to see her work with Owen Pallet (or another equally gifted string experimentalist) someday.
Sam Amidon, vocalist/guitarist/banjoist, was another bright spot. His rich, unforced (and almost Art Garfunkle-esque) voice blended beautifully with the instruments, and he nailed the bluegrassy twang the concert was (incorrectly) billed as.
Thomas Bartlett, 802’s resident alcoholic pianist, and Nico Muhly, the Phantom himself, were a more mixed bag. Both are undeniably incredible musicians, whose credits include work with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Pops, Paris ballet, Yoko Ono and more. But their noise experiments (both had a hand in writing most of the music) didn’t channel the musical prowess of the musicians, particularly Amidon, to their full melodic potential.
It should be noted that some of the songs that did soar, including “The Angels Say,” were accompanied by local musicians of the Laurels String Quartet. Guest cellist Jacqueline Ultan was an incredible addition to their group, and I hope to see more of her in future performances.
This tour’s ultimate downfall was 802’s failure to blend their musicianship. I would love to see them move towards a form more akin to Union Station than Libby Larsen, uniting their extraordinary gifts to reinvent genres rather than having several mushed together in disjointed audial abstraction.
+ 802's Nico Muhly will perform with members of the MN Orchestra and New Amsterdam Records on Thursday night at the Bryant Lake Bowl. For more information