The North Carolina indie alt-folk ensemble Bowerbirds absolutely soared at Johnny Brenda’s Thursday night March 22nd. After an immensely long sound-check following London’s Dry the River, the band started their fairly lengthy and tightly-delivered set in front of a nearly sold out crowd. Comprised of Phil Moore, Beth Tacular and Mark Paulson (and joined by a drummer and a cello player), the band is on tour to promote their latest release, The Clearing. This newest album showcases texturally diverse instrumental layers, introspective and poetic lyrics, and wistfully wispy harmony. The ‘Birds tore it up the other night with intricate guitar-strumming, synergistic singing, and lush cello and violin duets which provided that deliciously gritty bow-to-string depth.
The quintet kicked off the set with “This Year” from their most recent record. It was a nice way to start things off, with some lush 3-4 part harmony, Tacular providing a low hum on accordion (which wasn’t initially coming through in full force), and thumping percussion. “The Yard” picked up the pace and showcased some hopping high-hat and very full harmony between Moore and Tacular, as well as background “ohs” that seemed to hit the ceiling and then some, almost like bird calls. The performance reeled you into Bowerbirds’ mystical world of forests and fresh starts.
“Stitch the “Hem” involved some moving syncopated lines in the keys, richly warm cello, and more of those sweet “ohs” and “oohs” that melded perfectly, so characteristic of the Bowerbirds’ songs. Even from the corner of the upstairs of the venue, standing above and behind the band, everything was coming through more or less clearly. Green and blue disco ball lights swirled in tandem with “Brave World”, which started off with a chime-like ring, ethereal piano chords marking the beat, and ancillary percussion. It was great audio/visual companionship. A slow and somber vocal interlude eventually ramped up to bumping drums, which included a snare rim-smack and a triangle-strike laying flat on the drummer’s floor tom- pretty unique percussion.
Strategically placed toward the end of the set, “Tuck the Darkness In”, the new record’s single, was as beautifully forlorn as it is in the studio- even better because it was right there, in the moment. Tacular said appropriately right before the song, “This is the coziest place.” The bell-like ringing in the keys, like that of a Fender Rhodes, the monumental percussion, Moore’s sorrowful yet realistic lyrics, and that tonally ambiguous cello line that hints at the exotic were nothing short of incendiary. It was rockin’ and melancholy at the same time. Bowerbirds filled that cozy venue with celestial folk-rock that evoked the magic of stories like Where the Wild Things Are, and Stardust.
One of three “encores” that were played right away was “In Our Talons” from Hymns for a Dark Horse. Its sprightly drum grooves, sing-along vocals with background “dee-dees”, and accordion licks infused it with a Celtic sound that made me feel as though I were on a benevolent pirate ship singing sea shanties.
There’s a quote from the aforementioned Neil Gaiman novel Stardust, to veer off track slightly, that nearly encapsulates the Bowerbirds’ performance the other night, and it reads: “The music made [me] think of spaces without limits, of huge crystalline spheres which revolved with unutterable slowness through the vasty halls of the air.”
“Tuck the Darkness In”
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