The Pinhook, Durham
Saturday, May 17–Sunday, May 18, 2014
Depending on the crowd you run with, the phrase “performance art" has a variety of associations, pretension and inaccessibility often being among them. But these descriptors don’t hold up for Grandma Sparrow, an oddball performance art-meets-music show that held court this weekend at The Pinhook for one night and one afternoon set.
Grandma Sparrow is the long-gestating brainchild and alter ego of Megafaun’s Joe Westerlund. This weekend’s shows, in addition to one on Friday in Richmond, Va., served as the album-release sweep for Grandma Sparrow & his Piddletractor Orchestra,
tomorrow on Spacebomb Records. Though the Grandma Sparrow project is musical at heart, Westerlund’s panoply of characters transform it into something far beyond just a band. Indeed, the group performed at an improv comedy club in Richmond, a move that's as appropriate as a space like The Pinhook.
Mountain Man’s Alexandra Sauser-Monnig opened both sets. At first, the pairing seemed odd, but it worked perfectly. Sauser-Monnig’s soft, lilting voice floated through old country songs and mountain ballads, creating a calm that helped settle the audience before Grandma Sparrow took flight.
Westerlund played Grandma Sparrow and a revolving cast of other characters, all from the fictitious town of Piddletractor. Durham four-piece Canine Heart Sounds—which includes Westerlund's brother, Dan—accompanied him. On the record, Westerlund benefits from having Richmond's entire Spacebomb Orchestra at his disposal, but the smaller backing band offered tight accompaniment in every respect, allowing Westerlund leeway to hop about the room and get as wacky as he wanted.
The Saturday and Sunday sets differed little in terms of their actual content, as the band played through Piddletractor Orchestra
on both occasions. It was the general atmosphere of each show, though, that differed most: Saturday’s crowd was much more antsy than the mellow, more family-oriented bunch that attended Sunday. Still, both audiences clapped, sang along and tried to follow along the prescribed dance moves that went along with “The Pigsmilk Candycane.” What's more, the handful of children in the audience on Sunday mostly stood agog, trying to process the bold audio-visual spectacle before them. Their faces, both baffled and overstimulated, were priceless.
It's too bad that neither show was full. The Pinhook was at less than half-capacity on Saturday night, and Sunday’s crowd was even smaller. It was a busy weekend across the Triangle, but perhaps folks were deterred by some sort of false sense of inaccessibility, some notion that the Grandma Sparrow act would be too bizarre to be any good. And yes, it was weird, but it was even more fun. I spent far more time laughing and being entertained than scratching my head.
Performance art doesn’t have to be something exclusive, snooty or pretentious. As Grandma Sparrow suggested, it can be joyful, fun and engaging for the performers and attendees alike.