MusicNOW (Day 1)

May 13 • Memorial Hall

The MusicNOW festival has earned a reputation for being a fest unlike the rest thanks to The National guitarist Bryce Dessner’s ability to lure kindred artistic spirits to his annual hometown showcase of progressive Indie music. MusicNOW participants have been explorers of the avant-garde edge of Neo Chamber, Experimental, Indie music and many points prior, between and beyond, ranging from esoteric underground artists to niche specialists to some of the more popular names in the Indie universe.

All of them know that they can come to Cincinnati, play a gorgeous room in a hallowed building (Memorial Hall, Music Hall’s smaller neighbor) with likeminded performers (often friends) for a receptive audience. The performers also know MusicNOW is a fest unlike the rest because they can (and are expected to) do something special and unique, be it a rare collaboration, unexpected instrumental approach or the debut of new material.

It’s the kind of festival that seems specifically designed for the special presentations that open this year’s MusicNOW.

Shara Worden is the mastermind behind My Brightest Diamond, the banner under which she records and tours. Worden — who brought MBD to 2007’s MusicNOW — is a classically trained vocalist and the singer/songwriter’s music is often reflected thought the prism of Classical, opera and Chamber music, resulting in a moody, graceful brand of majestic Indie Folk.

Worden will perform with the strings/woodwind/horns ensemble yMusic providing the lush backdrop. Worden and yMusic will recreate their performance at Lincoln Center from earlier this year, where they performed compositions created for the Center’s American Songbook series, showcasing a wide range of artists paying homage to traditional American music styles.

That Americana theme is a perfect match for the other big performance Friday, “Sounds of the South.” The intriguing project was crafted by the progressive, Roots-inspired experimental trio Megafaun after a commission from Duke University (a release of the recording is reportedly due soon). Tinkering with the boundaries of traditional Americana music is something Megafaun has made its name with, so the “South” commission was a perfect fit. For the performance piece, the so-called “Freak Folk” group used the songs from legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s landmark 1961 collection of field recordings from the southern U.S., one of Lomax’s many missions to preserve the foundation of traditional music before the originators were all gone.

Megafaun and the project’s special guests premiered “South” last year in North Carolina, where the Wisconsin-bred trio now resides, and received much acclaim. Those attending the performance at MusicNOW are in for a truly rare experience, as Megafaun reunites the “original cast” for its Friday performance. MusicNOW veteran Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver, was the last guest confirmed to reprise his role in “Sounds of the South” at Memorial Hall. It’s far from the first time Vernon has worked with his old pals — he and the Megafaun members started out together in Wisconsin in the band DeYarmond Edison, the earliest examples of both acts’ creative use of American Roots influences.

Also back on board for the show’s upcoming performance is Fight the Big Bull, the wildly eclectic, improv-ready Jazz ensemble noted for their distinct, uniquely southern edge. From Virginia, FTBB’s collaborative album with trumpeter Steven Bernstein was very well received and made NPR’s list of the best Jazz releases from 2010.

Singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten will also be involved with the performance again. The up-and-coming Jersey native’s intimate, evocative Indie Folk songs have earned her some high-profile fans, including early booster Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio and Ted Leo, as well as members of The National, who’ve collaborated often with Van Etten. She can be heard prominently on The National’s “Think You Can Wait,” written for the recent indie flick Win Win. Van Etten will also perform Sunday with The National at Music Hall.

The two commissioned pieces that make up Friday’s MusicNOW programming reflect an engaging element of today’s Indie music world that proves that just because something is based on “traditional” forms doesn’t mean it’s inflexible or untouchable. These artists make Dylan’s “revolutionary” switch to electric instrumentation seem like an innocent junior high school science experiment in comparison.

Also slated for Friday is the performance of the new composition the festival commissions each year. It was renamed the MusicNOW Esme Kenney Commission last year in honor of the young SCPA student of the arts who was murdered in 2009. Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and yMusic performed the Clark-penned piece last year; for the 2011 commission, yMusic will play a new work by Richard Reed Parry, member of Arcade Fire and a MusicNOW regular.

MUSICNOW featuring performances by Shara Worden, yMusic, Megafaun, Fight the Big Bull, Sharon Van Etten and Justin Vernon. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

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