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Rebranded as simply The ArtsCenter, this Triangle institution, tucked away in a nondescript strip mall in Carrboro, is starting up its forty-second year of presenting an eclectic mixture of (mostly) musical artists ranging from local favorites to internationally known virtuosi. The 2017/2018 season opener was definitely in the latter category: the brilliant guitarist who defies categorization, Bill Frisell, along with his relatively new group called Harmony. A nearly packed house filled this comfortable-as-an-old-shoe venue for a chance to see and hear Frisell up close along with an ensemble whose advance description is musically enticing.
The lineup is a stellar group of musicians, all of whom have been part of Frisell's orbit of players for many years. Featured vocalist is Petra Haden, who is the daughter of the recently deceased legendary bassist, composer and bandleader Charlie Haden. Rounding out the quartet is cellist Hank Roberts, a member of a previous Frisell quartet, and Luke Bergman, advertised as playing a baritone guitar, basically a guitar with a longer length enabling it to almost serve as a six-string bass. Roberts and Bergman also supply some occasional backup vocals. Harmony is described as "…a sprawling and evocative trip through the landscape of American music of the last century." It's way more than that, and "trip" is an apt descriptor.
The informal character of The ArtsCenter is but one of its virtues, and when Frisell and Harmony came out, it had more of the feel of friends coming into your living room than a contracted gig. The promise of Americana or "roots" music was nowhere to be heard for a while: Frisell was playing creative but disjointed riffs on his solid-body, Stratocaster-style guitar, Roberts was coaxing some very un-cello sounds from his instrument and Haden was wordlessly vocalizing with a clear, haunting, ethereal sound. Then, abruptly, she sang "Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears…" and we were suddenly wrapped in one of the most plaintive and poignant songs ever written: Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More." This was how the evening would proceed: a fascinating, alternating mix of very familiar and traditional tunes broken by interludes of excursions into uncharted musical territory whose only boundaries were the remarkable creativity and talents of these four musicians.
With all due respect to the highly-respected musicians joining Frisell, it was indeed this legendary guitarist who was the focal point of this performance. There is not, and never has been, an adjective preceding "guitarist" when describing him and tonight was a virtuosic display of that. Every note, every phrase, every surprising harmony was a brilliantly crafted composition that uncovered previously unexplored possibilities in songs that might even be described as banal. After all, it takes a consummate arranger/player to have the audience on the edge of its seats as he plays "Red River Valley!" Frisell also never resorts to speed or extravagant difficulty as a platform to show off his technique. Add to all that the ravishing, clear tone he gets out of the somewhat anachronistic guitar he is playing (for "roots" music), and we are witness to a perfect musical storm.
What would an Americana concert be without an homage to the early folk music scene? We were transported back to an old-fashioned Hootenanny (remember that TV show, Medicare recipients?) as they played Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" (with the obligatory audience sing-along) and Woody Guthrie's anthemic "This Land is Your Land." Again, it's nearly impossible to make these songs new and interesting and yet retain their power and simplicity, but somehow Harmony managed to do just that.
For me, the most surprising and bizarre selection was "On the Street Where You Live" from My Fair Lady. Haden's voice seemed uncomfortable with this Broadway selection, and it felt incongruous.
When they left the stage having played for less than an hour, I felt a bit cheated, but they came back for almost a second set that was even better than what went before. One of the big hits of the early blues epoch was "Freight Train" by Elizabeth Cotton, born in Carrboro, NC in 1893. Frisell made notice of a plaque right across the street honoring her and, with false modesty, spoke of the difficulty of her unique guitar technique. He didn't seem to have any trouble!
The highlight of the evening was a stunningly emotional rendition of "Shenandoah," perhaps the classic American traditional song of uncertain origin. This song has always been a bottomless fount of beautiful harmony, melody, and lyrics for countless arrangers, but the simplicity of vocalist and guitarist is, for me, the most engaging. Haden and Frisell left the audience with a deep reverence for this apex of American music with an emotional, heartfelt performance. Yes indeed: where have all the flowers gone?