Monday, May 9, 2011

Real Autotuned Singing: Sarah McQuaid and Martin Sexton

I saw two solid concerts last week here in Urbana-Champaign. What stood out to me about both of them was the incredible vocal quality of both performers. In this age of autotuned recordings, it is an impressive thing to sit back and soak in the sounds of people who have excellent pitch, great control and well-maintained instruments.

Those characteristics apply to both Sarah McQuaid, who I saw last Tuesday night as part of the Piper's Hut concert series, and Martin Sexton, who played at the Canopy Club in a distressingly early show last Wednesday evening.

Sarah McQuaid at the Independent Media Center

Sarah McQuaid, I had never seen before. Born in Spain, raised in Chicago, 13 years in Ireland and now living in Cornwall, she brings all of those possible influences and more into her music. She opened up with an a capella version of "The Wagoner's Lad," and she had me sold. From that Appalachian classic, she moved onto "The Next Market Day" (a traditional song about going for a roll in the hay) and then "Ya Se Murio El Burro" (a traditional Spanish children's song about a dead donkey).

Her singing was terrific, and her voyages into the (traditional) American song catalogue were highly enjoyable: "In the Pines," "East Virginia" (which she learned from a Joan Baez record that she spun on her Mickey Mouse record player as a child), an instrumental version of "Shady Grove" (on her DADGAD-tuned guitar -- she wrote the book), "West Virginia Boys" (with pink tambourine accompaniment), Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe" and then Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" as an encore.

From the other side of the Atlantic, she gave us "Johnny Lad" (a Robert Burns song that she learned at an Irish festival being held at a German club in Philadelphia), "The Banks of the Lee" (which she called "When Two Lovers Meet") and Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

Her original compositions were good -- "Only an Emotion" was about disliking the British habit of telling you that you're not allowed to walk around scowling, while "Aqui Me Pinte Yo" was inspired by a Frida Kahlo painting.

Martin Sexton at the Canopy Club

When I was in high school, I used to wear a Martin Sexton pin on my backpack (right next to the huge Nields sticker) -- it was the cover to Black Sheep, his second album. Despite wearing that pin, I actually was not a terribly big fan of his music.

Well maybe I should have been inspired by the pin and listened to that disc a little bit more often...

Because Martin Sexton is awesome. I thought this when I saw him play a magical set at Falcon Ridge back in 2008. And I thought it last Wednesday night.

You want control? He has amazing vocal control. You want pitch? He has it in the low range and the high range. You want a human beatbox? He can do it. You want some bluesy guitar? He's got that covered. You want well-crafted songs? Call Marty. You want a segue into Led Zeppelin's "Since I Been Lovin' You"? He's on it. "Helter Skelter" with some guitar percussion? That's next.

He has his shtick down, but he seems to be enjoying it. He took the stage and started banging away on the guitar and giving us the beatbox, and the crowd started singing along, and we were off on a great ride.

He was having fun. "Living a Lie" was dedicated to "muthaf*ckas working a corporate job who wish they had started an electronica band." Another was for "anybody on their last date -- and I mean it." And then there was a song about meeting his wife in New York: "Aw, isn't that sweet? ... The original version is all dirty sex positions at the end."

"Angeline" and "Gypsy Woman" were highlights, and despite doing a rap about being thankful that he's not one of those performers who has to play the same songs every night, he played both "Glory Bound" and "Black Sheep." (So, um, really, Marty?) But whatever, because it's not like I've been able to take "Glory Bound" off the stereo for the last five days...

For his encore, he brought a new microphone out into the crowd, told the people in back to stop talking and treated us to an intimate number from the floor.

This was his Urbana debut apparently, and I hope that I get the chance to see him here again soon. (It would be great, though, if the show starts after the sun has set, I think... Maybe there would be a few more people in the crowd then, and it wouldn't, for Marty, be "like Cambridge, Mass, back in 1993." But again, whatever... He brought it.)

Here's the performance of "Glory Bound" from Falcon Ridge three years ago -- not the greatest sound quality, but you can find about 50 other YouTube versions if you don't like this one:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Low Anthem at Jazz Fest

I returned late last night from a trip to New Orleans that was ostensibly about Jazz Fest but was really more about old stomping grounds, great friends, and amazing food than music. I did, however, manage to make it to Jazz Fest for a few hours before catching my plane back home. We unknowingly walked through the gate on Gentilly to the sounds of the Low Anthem and like moths to a flame, were drawn closer and closer to the stage.

Although the sound at the show didn't do justice to the harmonies, the performance was solid--earnest and intentional and of a well-executed roots rock aesthetic. These were serious musicians clearly putting their accumulated understanding of their songs into a mid-afternoon set. The crowd was enjoying the music, but was also talking. I wondered, as the band helped me ease into the afternoon, whether there was room among the food and beer and multiple stages, for those hushed moments that serious musicians are capable of creating. I wondered this, and then the Low Anthem played an intense, beautiful version of "Bird on a Wire" to close their set. It settled over the crowd slowly, a quieting and calming sound.

The video above is from about a month ago but is similar to the version I heard in New Orleans.