Megafaun feat. Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) & Nick Sanborn (Sylvan Esso)
The Pinhook, Durham
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Last night, a few songs into his band’s first set in nearly two years, Megafaun’s Brad Cook made a circle at the center of the stage. He talked and signaled to the other three members, counting off numbers and nodding in recognition. He stepped back to his microphone, and drummer Joe Westerlund cantered into the beat of “Ain’t No More Cane.” The harmonies rang rich and ragged for the song’s declarative opening line, suggesting a band that was a bit out of practice but certainly not out of its comfort zone. They knew this song; they could, and did, play it with near-preternatural ease.
Eight years ago, “Ain’t No More Cane” was a set regular for the four musicians—Brad Cook, Phil Cook, Justin Vernon and Joe Westerlund—who stood onstage last night at The Pinhook. But they weren’t called Megafaun then; instead, they were DeYarmond Edison, a quartet of Wisconsin friends who had moved to Raleigh to test the experimental limits of their heartland folk-rock in a music scene they’d correctly heard was budding. (You can read and see them from that era here.
Not long after the move, as the fable goes, the band fractured into uneven parts—Westerlund and the Cook brothers started Megafaun, while Justin Vernon retreated to a cabin in northern Wisconsin to emerge with the material that would make him quite famous as Bon Iver.
Last night, Vernon joined Megafaun for the entirety of its return to the stage, but this wasn’t a DeYarmond Edison reunion. In that band, Vernon was the clear frontman, a boundary that the quartet desperately tried to break during a residency at Raleigh’s long-gone Bickett Gallery. Still, I remember versions of “Ain’t No More Cane” in that same space when the young quartet seemed as if it were actively splitting apart at the seams, Westerlund slapping the big cymbals of his little drum kit as Vernon began to scream those verses. In the intervening years, however, they’ve all found their respective, individual paths and the newfound confidence such a process can bring. Westerlund’s become an in-demand touring drummer and background vocalist, his reedy voice fitting like an old Southern glove. And during Megafaun’s long pause, the Cooks have made strong careers from production and sideman work, working with folks that would have sounded like fantasies back then. And if you’re reading this, I assume you’re familiar with Vernon’s taglines.
Last night, though, he was the only person onstage that didn’t take a verse—not only during “Ain’t No More Cane,” but during the entire set, too. Both Cooks sang plenty, with Brad’s voice crackling more than it once did, like a record where the dust between the needle and the groove comes pre-recorded in the session itself. Phil even took the lead for “Boomer’s Story,” a howling Ry Cooder cover that’s the anchor of a passion project with his other band, The Guitar Heels. And Westerlund, who was dangerously shy with his voice during the DeYarmond Edison era, sang wonderfully, leading his own hilarious way through “His Robe” and drifting and dreaming with the outfit around him for the gentle “You Are the Light.”
Standing behind Brad, Vernon was mostly hidden, partially obscured and completely embracing the role of sideman, labeled only as “our friend Justin.” He alternated between guitar and bass, sometimes taking solos with a slide or an EBow but otherwise staying out of the way and only having fun with old friends. For the final two songs of the set, Nick Sanborn—now known best as the non-singing half of Sylvan Esso—jumped onstage, too, reprising his brief role as Megafaun’s auxiliary member. His appearance confirmed that this set was about Megafaun
, not about any acrimony that led to the band’s formation or any stars that had risen in their wake. It was simply about revisiting the three very good LPs (and the EP, Heretofore
, from which they lifted liberally) with the old pals that could make it to the show. If anything about it was a brag, it was a deceptively humble one.
I’ve seen a lot of Megafaun sets. I toured with them for a time, both as a journalist and then as a friend and roommate. And I’ve seen better Megafaun sets than what I saw last night. There have been moments where they seemed so dead-set on defying expectations of their folk or just how “freaky” it could get that the gesture sometimes made just as much compelling sense as the action itself. At The Pinhook last night, they were more of an Americana-rock outfit with broad borders, descendants of The Grateful Dead, free jazz and experimental composition who had turned back to making sure their songs were sound. They weren't out to break molds, but to fill them and move on. The band revisited those vanguards in brief, especially during a wonderful, aggressive, set-closing take on “Kaufman’s Ballad." The guitars roared like doom. The drums emptied in spasms.
But from the uneven beginning, where the harmonies felt a bit out of touch, to the encore moment where the core trio jumped offstage and played in the crowd, surrounded by friends old and new, it was one of the most remarkable Megafaun sets I’ve ever seen. It was so very comfortable and easygoing and honest. No one seemed out to wow anybody else, to make any big industry or technical moves. Some dudes just seemed to have a good time in their favorite hometown club, which they’ve never played, in a configuration that will likely never exist again.
In essence, the show, minus the cover charge, could’ve happened on any night at Bickett Gallery eight years ago, before Grammy speeches for Vernon or international tours for Megafaun. But it wouldn’t have been as good, as relaxed or as purely and somehow innocently enjoyable.
Megafaun will play again at The Pinhook tonight. Loamlands open.