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The Goofball Salon: The 802 Tour at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Filmmaker and Writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Thursday’s performance by The 802 Tour. […]

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Filmmaker and Writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Thursday’s performance by The 802 Tour. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, Sam Amidon, and Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett, who collectively make up The 802 Tour, started a two-night set at the Walker Thursday night, and the disappointingly small crowd was treated to an incredible display of musical talent, friendship, and collaboration on stage. It wasn’t like a jam session or a rehearsal, but rather like watching four incredibly talented musicians get together and revel in what they’ve created, and in music itself. From their first entrance together to the McGuire stage, the four were bantering back and forth, as well as with the crowd. I’ve seen Muhly solo twice before, and this banter with the audience is a trademark, and he hasn’t seemed to change at all in the past few years. “You’re in the wrong key, Sam,” one of them needled Amidon as he started tuning up.

The 802 Tour. Photo: Justin Schell

For all their goofiness and banter, however, everyone has serious chops. Sirota displayed these on, among other pieces, two solo works written by Muhly which traversed the entire range of the viola and just about every bowing style you could come up with. While I found Doveman’s whisper-voice a bit off-putting, his compositional and piano skills are undeniable. Muhly performed his incredible and manic piano + prepared piano + electronics piece Skip Time, while Amidon performed a number of traditional folk songs. Amidon’s intonation, inflection, and rasp made me think I was listening to someone much older and wizened. And, in contrast to the other three musicians’ highly emotive playing styles, Amidon often looked vacantly straightforward as he played, letting his banjo, guitar, and above all his voice carry the song’s emotional weight.

Sam Amidon. Photo: Justin Schell

Many of the pieces, drawn from all of their repertoires, segued into each other, with each person contributing some element, whether it be viola, banjo, guitar, various keyboards/electronics, percussion, or harmonies. In what looked like some kind of post-minimalist Victor Borge routine, Muhly and Doveman would reach across, under, over, and behind each other as the hit different notes on the three keyboards (plus a laptop) that surrounded them. It was piano four hands, but with a whole lot more instruments.

Nico Muhly and Thomas "Doveman" Bartlett. Photo by Justin Schell.

The Twin Cities’ own Laurels Quartet joined the Vermonters in the second half, as they played the string quartet arrangements Muhly wrote for songs from Doveman’s latest album, The Conformist. Mostly the Quartet provided a lush bed of strings, akin to that other Nico on songs like “These Days.”

The night ended with Muhly’s suite “The Only Tune,” a fractured folk song with vocals by Amidon, from Muhly’s album mothertongue. With echoes of maiden-death in songs like “Pretty Polly” and “Oh, My Darling Clementine,” Muhly’s piece tells the story of two sisters walking by a stream. The lyrics, however, are delivered in fragments, building anticipation for the next word with each repetition. One sister pushes the other in, who drowns. A miller downstream pulls her body from the water and, inexplicably, makes a fiddle out of her remains—a bow from her hair, pegs from her finger bones, and a bridge from the bridge of her nose. Though this fiddle could “melt a heart of stone,” the audience is left wondering about “The only tune that fiddle could play” as the sounds of the four musicians slowly faded away. A waltzing version of Amidon’s song “Saro,” with the Laurels Quartet joining the four on-stage, was the encore to close the evening.

The seats should’ve been filled for this concert, and I hope more people come for Friday night’s show.

The Laurels Quartet + The 802 Tour. Photo by Justin Schell

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