Nico Muhly And Friends, Union Chapel, London, 08/05/2009


Posted on May 11th 2009 12:37 am

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Nico Muhly and Friends, Union Chapel, London, 08/05/2009

The Union Chapel, up in Islington, north London, played host to Nico Muhly’s pre-ATP performance this Friday evening, and as the billing suggested, the New Yorker had brought along a handful of friends, including young folk singer Sam Amidon, pianist Thomas Bartlett, who usually officiates under the name of Doveman, Icelandic vocalist Helgi Hrafn and Bedroom Community label head and Björk and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy collaborator Valgeir Sigurðsson.

In the two years since the release of his debut album, Speaks Volume, on Bedroom Community, Nico’s profile has risen greatly. His second album, Mothertongue, released last year, showcased his incredible range much more clearly. Beside his solo work, he’s also orchestrated music for people as diverse as Björk, Antony And The Johnsons, Rufus Wainwright, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and, most recently, Grizzly Bear.

Playing on a piano which he later described as ‘crazy out of tune’ and ‘honky-tonk style’, Muhly opened with an impressive and somewhat tensed piece, entitled Skiptown, written as a reaction to the news of a friend leaving New York. Great fluid gestures and lively facial expressions served to highlight the many twists and turns of the piece, and set off the show on a particularly complex and enchanting note. Following the performance of a violin piece by a young British musician, Muhly invited Helgi Hrafn on stage for a performance of Wonders, originally featured on Mothertongue and written to suit the singer’s extraordinary range. The piece, stretching well over the ten minute mark, goes through a number of phases, some quiet and peaceful, some much more tempestuous and intense. Live, it had even more vibrant hues, and the contrast between the various sections appeared greater. At times, Hrafn’s voice was a mere spec of dust, carried around by the force of the music, while at others, it beamed through to become the main focal point. Always though, Muhly was there, playing, directing, in control of his troop, whilst sharing jokes with Bartlett.

The pair then performed a piece of electronic pop which was composed for a common project, before Sam Amidon took his place centre stage for three traditional American folk songs, bringing a touch of gentleness to the show. His smokey voice sliding along the soft acoustic guitar tones of Saro first, then All Is Well, the title track from his solo album from last year, and finally Falsehearted Chicken, while Muhly and Bartlett provided delicate piano brushes, Sigurðsson some light electronics and Hrafn some deeper tones on the trombone. Bartlett, in his Doveman guise, also performed three of his own songs, accompanied solely by Amidon, first on banjo, then on guitar. His much more fragile voice and reflective songs signalled yet another change of mood for this most eclectic of evenings, but it once again seemed a perfectly coherent move and had the audience totally engaged.

Muhly, Sigurðsson and Hrafn returned for the last piece of the evening. Based on a story that Muhly’s parents used to tell him as a child, The Only Tune was written for Sam Amidon, and was featured on Mothertongue. Like Wonders, The Only Tune is a complex and demanding piece which tells the story of two sisters, one being pushed in a river by the other. The lyrics are, at times, syncopated and sliced up and slowly build up to become more constructed. At first, Amidon’s vocals were soft and delicate, but grew much more affirmative, and then tensed, up to the point where he found himself pushed to breaking point, his voice totally collapsing for a moment. An intricately layered piece, with once again intense highs and lows, it provided a strong coda to the evening. Muhly returned for a solo encore, playing a melancholic piece, once again written for friends who were moving away from New York, finally bringing this unique evening to a close.

Icon: arrow Nico Muhly (MySpace) | Sam Amidon | Doveman | Bedroom Community

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