Nonesuch Records recently turned fifty and celebrated the honor with an extensive concert program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Their event on September 19 featured a nice representation of the label’s winsome roster: Devendra Banhart, Stephin Merritt, and Iron and Wine.
BAM has an architectural elegance and polish probably unfamiliar to these bohemian indie stars. The audience sat constrained in plush velvet seats, rather than postured in an edgy club. The stage had incredible regality and history, instead of the gritty, seedy setting familiar to the artists. Still, these veteran musicians seem at the point in their careers where this spatial change of pace seemed exciting and appropriate.
Devendra Banhart opened the show. He emerged in all black, with shoes shining like a pomade coif. He sat cross-legged in a tiny wooden chair and delicately strummed an electric guitar. The chair could hardly contain him as his legs lifted and twisted and his body swayed like a branch in the wind. He charmed the audience with lightness and humor — often indulging in quirky vocal inflections and amusing whispered “thank yous” or “gracias” after each song. Over half his set came in Spanish, but the audience didn’t seem to care, as Devendra had enough gravitas and grace to enrapture.
Listen: “Für Hildegard Von Bingen” – Devendra Banhart
Stephin Merritt next took the stage. He opened with an ad-lib about attempting to quickly translate his own songs into Latin to continue the trend of having bilingual sets. This penchant for humor pervaded throughout the entire performance. Merritt’s vocals can plunge into the deep-sea. His instrumentation has a beautiful and clean rhythm, providing an excellent sonic palette for Merritt’s unusual and distinctive lyrical approach. For example, on “Shipwrecked”, Merritt amuses: “Shipwrecked with you, shipwrecked with you I can’t think of a single thing I’d rather do,
and that’s why I decapitated the crew.” The audience broke into laughter at his off-beat songs about love or mice or shipwreck. If Banhart had a subtle humor, Merritt’s went all the way, and provided the opera house with an energy that brought wide smiles.
Watch: “Andrew in Drag (Acoustic”) – Stephin Merritt
Sam Beam of Iron and Wine closed the night off. He emerged from the curtains with a guitar and a beard fitting a woodland lumberjack. He asked the audience what songs they would like to hear and quickly found a jumbled yell of sound shooting back at him from all directions. With no formula, he would randomly select a shouted song and start playing it. Beam has vocal power and his lyrics come with a poet’s touch, nuanced and luring. He showcased many Iron and Wine classics such as “Sodom, South Georgia” as well as some newer, unreleased songs. His set nicely topped the evening off.
Listen: “Naked As We Came” – Iron and Wine
Overall, all three artists managed to create their own energy and intrigue. Yet, familiar themes of humor, lightness, and poetry connected the sets. Nonesuch Records should be proud to have these three artists, as evidenced by their recent performance.