Every person in Cat's Cradle was surprised by the first notes of music emanating from the stage as the opening act snuck onto stage with nary a word and began their set.
The band was Annie and the Beekeepers. Annie Lynch is Lisa Loeb as a boxy-figured blonde wrapped in plaid, full of post-teen angst and folk music. Hers is a band that could comfortably cover "Home on the Range." And probably kill it.
As she grabbed a banjo and began tuning and picking at it three songs in, Lynch announced that the band had a rather unique brand of merch: beeswax lip balm and, of course, honey. Her sales pitch included the name of the maker of the honey whom she thanked but I missed. It was no matter because she was quickly greeted by a catcall from the tall guy playing an upright bass at the back of the stage, "Actually, the bees made the honey..." Part of the beauty of listening to live americana is that vaguely anti-social people have to tell you jokes while they tune their instruments. There is an unwritten rule of rock and roll that lead singers must be able to talk and find a G at the same time. Awkward laughter is the sound of enjoying folk music.
The closest thing we came to a transcendent moment in a 30 minute set that covered the ground of what sounded like one EP was "Like a Dog" in which Lynch expresses the paradoxical loneliness of the artist up front entertaining while missing out on the life she's singing about only in songs. "Someone Else" was also a standout simply for the opening lines of, "When it takes too long to look away/You might catch me staring at the sun with thoughts I entertain/Not supposed to look that way/But it tickles at my senses/Puts the pleasure in the pain." As Annie and the Beekeepers exited the stage with the generic, perfunctory nod to the next bands, they gave kind of show that makes you look over at the people you came with and say, "They were better than I thought they would be." And I did just that as Lissie prepared to take the stage.
As Lissie Maurus belted out an appropriately gender-tweaked version of Hank Williams' "Wedding Bells" to open her band's set, she reminded me of a post-Southern rock incarnation of Cherie Currie. (But Dakota Fanning wouldn't be my first choice to portray her in a movie.) Everything about Maurus, from the jeans and tank combo she was sporting on stage to her stringy unkempt blonde hair to the way she guzzled PBR out of a 12 ounce can between songs, alerted the audience to the fact that she spent an inordinate amount of time in her adolescence playing guitar in the greasy garages of guys who didn't shower much. In a world of "Good girls rarely make history" and The Purity Myth, the new feminists have underestimated the power of the kind of equality that comes from sitting behind an electric guitar and wailing on it. Maurus has not. Mystique that, Betty Friedan.
Maurus' band was just as impressive as the frontwoman herself. Eric Sullivan looks like he belongs in a Rage Against the Machine cover band but he's just too talented for it. The hidden gem of this group, the moment he shined through the brightest was on Lissie's cover of Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters." I couldn't tell if hearing a woman sing the song made me believe that James Hetfield was really the pre-eminent momma's boy of metal but Sullivan sounded better than Kirk Hammett on that guitar solo. Sullivan strikes me as a kid who could have went to space camp and actually become an astronaut or been the only stock broker on Wall Street to survive the financial collapse but instead he was gifted with the kind of skills you channel into a guitar. There's probably thousands of guys like him on nameless tours across the country not getting their due but he got it that night before dozens of people whose respect for his artistry was tangibly present in the room as that song ended.
Yet the true baller of the group might be Lewis Kellar who plays bass, kick-drum and hi-hat... at the same time. If this dude has an off night, it's going to be bad news. As soon as Lissie finished their set, I looked over at a friend and said, "I hope he's getting paid double for this gig." I'm destined to be an unimportant talent agent breaking up fledgling bands over frivolous contract issues.
I realized nearly as soon as the headliners took the stage that The Low Anthem is awesome not because they are maybe the most talented group of people to ever perform in the same room as me (though they are). They are awesome because they wrote an album about Charles Darwin and when they play, they make you want to believe in God. They opened their set with "Ticket Taker," and never has the life of a carnie sounded simultaneously so dull yet metaphysically important. Everything sounds more important when Ben Knox Miller sings it.
The band began when a folk musician/painter from the Hudson Valley, Miller, met a jazz bassist/baseball scholar from Jersey, Jeff Prystowsky, when they were both on-air personalities for Brown University's college radio station. (Prystowsky actually ended up being a slight, excitable man of unknown ethnicity with a funny hat and an excellent mustache who stood in front of me for the first two band's sets. This is the kind of band The Low Anthem is. Easy to miss but with an uncommon energy.) Now they record music in an abandoned pasta sauce factory once owned by the nefarious mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. The story of the group's genesis proved to be just as unpredictable as their set, which Miller at one point graciously described as "bipolar." Multiple personality disorder would likely be the more clinically appropriate diagnosis. I'm certain that every member of the band switched instruments between each song. Which is quite possible because they use for instrumentation: voice, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, upright bass, electric bass, banjo, clarinet, violin, mandolin, harmonica, keyboard, piano, fun machine, casio, horn, trumpet, trombone, drum kit, tongue drum, cell phones, music box, zither, pump organ, Tibetan singing bowl, broom, shakers, tambourine, wood block, cowbell, filing cabinet, crotales and oil drum.
Using cell phones as accompaniment was one of the truly unique aspects of any live show I've ever been a part of. I say "been a part of" because Miller actually implored the audience to participate in making the music by waiting until after the second chorus on a song from their 2007 album, What the Crow Brings, to call a friend they came with, set both phones and speaker, and let the feedback wail. This is music to The Low Anthem. I think anything is. I only wish I could use words with the kind of versatility this band treats every object on earth when it comes to music. The result was this incredible participatory experience between band and audience. After all, it takes a certain humility to leave the sound of your concert up to the people listening. But it also results in an experience no one in the room is likely to ever forget.