Live Review: Megafaun, Mount Moriah, The Beast rock out for the kids
I’ve never bought into the traditional rock notion that “real artists” define themselves with their live performance, that how a band performs in front of a crowd is somehow more important than what they produce on record. This is partially because my formative music years were entirely consumed by recordings. My first proper rock show was a Greenvile, S.C. stop by The Eagles at the age of 17. (Insert cringes here) But it’s mostly because records strike me as real statements, well-thought-over distillations of an artist at their best, where as shows, while important, are merely fleeting snapshots of bands in the moment.
I still don’t agree with the notion, but I understand it a lot better after Megafaun‘s Saturday set at the Motorco Music Hall in Durham. Megafaun’s 2011 self-titled double LP is as close to a classic rock collection as three (now four) weirdo anti-folkies could possibly come. It moves like a Band record with strung-out bridges galore. Compared to the outfit’s helter-skelter beginnings it’s relatively tame; a good record, but by far the most boring entry in their catalog.
Live, the strength of the band’s new rock band approach is strikingly clear. They’ve transformed from a scrappy trio of multi-instrumentalists into a professional and ambitious four-piece with clearly defined roles. Newcomer Nick Sanborn grounded the outfit with catchy and kinetic bass lines that never missed. Joe Westerlund has grown into a tremendous drummer, shifting from tasteful accompaniment to climatic cavalcades with wowing ease. Brad Cook holds down an experimental edge on guitar, zipping through atmospheric solos that occupy the middle ground between angular indie rock and precise honky-tonk fills. His brother Phil maintains their charming folk touch as he produces absorbing melodies with banjo, piano and guitar. Like the best live rock bands, it’s a set-up that allows each player’s talent to show through.
But what truly set their live show apart from their last record is the energy they brought to the renditions. During the instrumentals the band would turn in towards each other, head-banging violently when the harder rock songs rose to crescendo. “Real Slow,” a laid-back, Dead-inspired slow jam on the album became the set’s rousing conclusion, rising to electrified transcendence on the back a ferocious solo from Brad. Beatles-y ballad “Second Friend” was live-wire pop perfection thanks to the tight give-and-take rhythm deployed by Sanborn, Westerlund and Cook on piano. There were a few lulls and miscues, but when Megafaun hit their mark they proved that their transformation is complete: North Carolina’s favorite folkies may well have become its best rock band.
The occasion for this show was likely an influence on the passion of their performance. The fourth annual Save Our Arts Benefit was held to raise money for arts programs at Durham’s Central Park School for Children, a charter elementary school for which Phil’s wife is the librarian. Apart from the familial connection, pushing art into the future is one of the things that makes Megafaun’s music exceptional, re-appropriating traditional forms and fashioning them into sounds for a new age. It makes sense, then, that fostering the next generation’s musical opportunity would bring out the best in them.
Mount Moriah took the stage with a tour-ready four piece, burning through a typically devastating folk-rock set. The return of early-Moriah drummer James Wallace was welcome. His harmonies with singer Heather McEntire were sublime, and he’s an exceptional rhythm player. A religious man, he plays the drums like a preacher invoking apocalypse, starting off quietly before building to a powerful tumult. Still, the real treat of the set was hearing the band try out three new songs. The renditions were rough, but heart-breaking turns of phrases abounded and subtle new instrumental innovations popped up here and there — the best of which was a searing guitar solo from Jenks Miller that recalled the nuanced brutality of his metal band Horseback.
The Beast showed off a host of new songs in the opening slot. In the past, the band — emcee Pierce Freelon and an ace jazz trio — has played it safe, relying on their juxtaposing styles to give them their edge. Their new songs push into riskier territory, adding new toys in service of a tighter, more textural attack. A couple of the songs hewed closer to R&B with Pierce acting more as singer than rapper. Keyboard player Eric Hirsch was the star in many of the new jams, particularly a freestyle that samples “Willy Wonka”‘s “Pure Imagination.” Hirsch spoke the chorus into a vocoder that allowed him to play his voice with his keys. It was a charming trick, but also one that ingrained the hook into the flow of the song. — Jordan Lawrence