I've just watched the six musicians of Black Prairie use a myriad collection of instruments to play something like a Gypsy barn dance hoedown bar mitzvah.
I'm not sure what that is or how it was done.
But I know that I, along with a small, yet enthusiastic, audience at Off Broadway, loved every minute of it.
Disclaimer: I am a Decemberists fan. And by fan, I mean fanatic. When I heard, two years ago, the band was going on a hiatus of undetermined length, my car had the left rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath and there was a persistent wail all night along the north shore.
OK that's not true, and I cribbed it from "The Great Gatsby," but I was sad.
What I did not know was that, prior to that announcement, members of my beloved band had already started to put together something new and very, very different. Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee and Nate Query had started playing together in a new incarnation with fellow Portland, Ore. musicians Annalisa Tornfelt and Jon Neufeld. They called themselves Black Prairie. Then, perhaps because he ran out of things to do at home, John Moen, also of the Decemberists, came along to drive the rhythm.
The group lists influences including bluegrass, klezmer, tango, jazz and the music of Romania. Collectively they play dobro, bouzouki, cello, accordion, bass, Weissenborn, fiddle, autoharp, Stroh violin, drums and guitar. John Moen plays his tie, for heaven's sake. It's actually a washboard shaped like a tie.
Perhaps you can understand my confusion regarding the explanation of the evening.
The night started with a solid, solo performance by Ashleigh Flynn and, if there was an Americana portion of the evening, it was brought to the fore by Flynn. Accompanied by only acoustic guitar, harmonica and a strong narrative voice, Flynn's music was true enough to the genre in question but it was her lyrical content that spoke clearly of America and, especially, our history.
Flynn's latest album, "A Million Stars," produced by Chris Funk and augmented by all the members of Black Prairie, is a collection of songs about women, some real and some imagined, who helped forge our country and push west as the east grew too much like that which had been before. Men did not do the job of pioneering this country alone, our movies and books and lore just make it appear that way. Flynn's new album seeks to correct that, not in the way of revision, but of inclusion: American myth and lore told the way it should have been, the way it really was.
Flynn's set, too short for my taste at just 30 minutes, included songs from her other works as well as her latest release and I will seek out more of her music. Her song construction is lean and uncomplicated and, as I said before, her voice is natural and easy to hear, perfect for narrative songs about things that matter.
After a short intermission and a bit of marveling at the size of the cans of beer sold at the venue, it became clear that Black Prairie plays what they want to play, regardless of genre. These are artists that love music in all its forms and they seek not the path where the dirt shows through.
Kierkegaard said, "The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays." With just a little word substitution: the function of playing is not to influence the audience, but rather to change the nature of the one who plays. This seems to be the driving force behind the band.
This is not music played to be famous. This is not the music of Top-10 videos. This is music played by masters at their craft, focused on little but their own growth.
The band started off with the gorgeous "Rock of Ages" with Annalisa's voice following the notes of Chris Funk's slide guitar and the song's purpose seems to be to relax and soothe. It did.
I am writing essay
the rain too cool
Late in the evening
I am the morning blue
Before birds sing
Hot in the afternoon
When I've nothing left
When I'm tempted to
Wake you from your rest
Wake you from your rest
For "Dirty River Stomp," Funk changed to banjo and John Moen played his tie. I swear it worked and my feet felt a little muddy by the end.
Nate Query bowed his bass for the beginning of "Little Songbird," along with Tornfelt's voice and the sound was otherworldly. Then Moen brought the beat and a slow groove emerged. Jon Neufeld's voice, deep in speaking but elastic in singing, fit the sound like a bespoken suit.
What would one call a violin that is not all violin but not all fiddle either? A fiddolin? Perhaps this captures the sound of Annalisa's crying instrument.
The band then played a couple of instrumentals, one of which Neufeld introduced by saying that it was written on his front porch on a back alley. The group really rocked these two songs, changing tempo and instruments and Jon Neufeld is a flat-picking wonder! Annalisa brought out something that I had never seen before: a Stroh violin, from Romania. It has a horn on it. Like someone took a small hearing aid trumpet and glued it to a fiddle. It is symbolic, I think, of a sound and instrumentation that is anything but the norm. The instrument is even on the band's t-shirts.
The band recently collaborated with writer Jon Mooallem to provide a soundtrack companion to his book, "Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America" and Chris Funk took up the autoharp and introduced a song from that work, "Dear Sir. Most Sincerely, William Temple Hornaday."
The band then played the ethereal "How Do You Ruin Me" and, as the song ended, I heard people, mostly women, around me say, "I love that song." And then they'd sigh.
Other highlights were "Winter Wind," "For the Love of John Hartford" and "Richard Manuel," written for the late, multi-instrumentalist from the Band.
For its encore, the band brought out Ashleigh Flynn to perform her song, "How the West Was Won" and the moment rocked, but not as much as the second encore song, a cover of Kansas' "Carry On My Wayward Son." Wow. These guys know how to leave a stage.
I must say I was disappointed at the size, but not the enthusiasm, of the crowd, which was hardly a crowd at all. The band was, however, unfazed. Nate Query announced, as they set up for the encore, "We've just played something like 15 shows in Nashville and, all put together, those weren't as cool as you."
It was probably true. But you get the impression that Black Prairie feels like that every night as they defy the bonds of gravity and play the music that flows through them and out to us, the lucky few.