It had been a couple years since I’d visited North Adams, which is a shame. It is home to a couple places I would go every day if I could. First, Mass MoCA, which is pretty much the best place I know of to see the work of really good new artists if you want to stay out of major cities. On Saturday they were showing a bunch of really excellent exhibits. I spent an hour or so in the interactive installation Bibliothecaphilia, which featured work by at least three different people, [i] including Jonathan Gitelson’s Mariginalia, which was basically a shrine to the weird stuff that people do to, with, and put inside books. There was a shelf of used paperbacks full of previous owners’ scribblings and inscriptions, and a display case full of things found inside the books – faded family pictures, to-do lists, love letters, thirty-year-old baseball cards. I’ve always experienced a secret joy when I get ahold of a used book and find one of these kinds of quirky treasures inside it. Glimpses into the minds of anonymous strangers are fascinating; Gitleson’s project hit me with an avalanche of those glimpses. I got lost in them for an hour of fascination and laughter, and almost didn’t notice the sound of Margaret Cho having an orgasm behind a curtain in the next room.[ii] Second, is Mount Greylock, a beautiful park full of hiking trails and panoramic views. I decided to combine the two together into one super awesome day, and polish the whole thing off with some live music in Mass MoCA’s almost intimidatingly classy theater space, which was cool, dark, and smelled better than anywhere else I’d ever seen live music.
Headlining the night were Brooklyn-based Alt-Country band The Lone Bellow, who have rocketed to semi-stardom in the past couple years behind their self-titled 2013 debut record, and this year’s Then Came the Morning. You’ve probably heard their insatiably catchy hits, including the title track and “You Never Need Nobody,” on the radio, or on the internet. Maybe you wondered, like I did, after hearing three soulfully down-home voices harmonize together so cleanly, if some researcher had created an algorithm that could produce perfectly polished songs that would make the likes of Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers obsolete.[iii]
The crazy thing is, singer and songwriter Zach Williams, lead guitarist and singer Brian Elmquist, and mandolinist and singer Kanene Donehey Pipkin are all real live human beings whose voices just sound like that, and who all just happen to be really ridiculously (yet accessibly) good-looking. The band even has a dramatic and sympathetic origin story that involves outrageous fortune being snatched from the jaws of near-tragedy. [iv] Watching the trio, along with bassist Jason Pipkin and drummer Justin Glasco, sweat their way through a ninety-minute set plus an encore, frenetically dancing around stage and pouring so much furrow-browed passion into their vocals, I came away feeling this is simply a group of talented people who are fortunate enough to get a chance to do what they love. You can see the joy on their faces and hear the excitement in their voices. They aren’t taking fame for granted, it’s all still fun and new for them.
The band ignited the crowd early on when Williams set down his guitar and double-fisted the microphone, pushing himself into “Then Came the Morning.” Next came a jammed-out version of “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home,” for which Williams jumped off the stage, standing up on a chair a few rows into the crowd to lead a clapping and call-and-response session the audience dove into with the enthusiasm of a kindergarten class. The drummer and bassist briefly left the stage as Donehey-Pipkin took the lead in an acoustic three-part harmony on a cover of Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away,” in which she showed off vocal chops that could easily make her a star in her own right. Other highlights included a soaring rendition of “Take My Love,” and this rumbling performance of “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold”:
The Lone Bellow are in the midst of a summer-long tour of festivals and theaters in North America and Europe. If you can take a dose of authentic joy and pure vocal talent, you should take the chance to check them out.
Earlier in the evening, I was absolutely blown away by the performance of Arc Iris, the new project founded by singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Jocelyn Adams, after she left The Low Anthem in 2013. In seeing her in front of her own band, it is obvious that Adams has great musical and artistic gifts to give and needed a different platform from which she could express them.
On stage with Adams at Mass MoCA were cellist and vocalist Robin Ryczek, keyboardist Zach Tenorio-Miller, and drummer Ray Belli. The band members are all highly skilled and intuitively musical, and have training in a variety of genres, including classical composition. The sounds they presented ranged from soaring, magical vocal harmonies, to scat-like, syllable-heavy jazz numbers, to bombastic chamber-music jams. Adams jumped from guitar to clarinet to keyboard to a podium above the stage, wearing a silver leotard and wielding the wings of a round, translucent cape during the introduction of the beautiful, quirky, and powerful piece “Honor of the Rainbows I & II”:
The songs sound great on the band’s self-titled album, with intricate and delicate arrangements that strongly feature Adams’ lyrical and vocal abilities. Live, the songs grow and expand, powered by Tenorio-Miller’s inspired work on the keys and synth, the fervent reverberations of Ryczek’s electric Cello, and the urgent pounding of Belli’s percussion. Adams’ compositions turn grandiose and symphonic when the group really gets burning. Her harmonies with Ryczek teeter above the instruments, adding a bright finish to their sound.
Here is a gently presented version of the song “Make Light of Thee (which doesn’t appear on the album),” and illustrates the group’s beautiful style and excellent musicianship:
Arc Iris is playing a handful of tour dates in the Northeast in the next couple months. I highly recommend their album, and making the effort to see them live, because I found both to be awesome, and distinct, experiences.
[ii] It was Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature, a series of videos depicting attractive women sitting at tables reading erotic passages from books while masturbating with a vibrator that is hidden from view until they climax.
[iii] There would be this awesome documentary made in the year 2020 in which Marcus Mumford and Colin Meloy would be re-evaluated as gritty, underdog John Henries making a last stand for all the easy-listening pop Americana acts who drifted into oblivion after the advent of The Dreaded Song Machine.