Gabriel Kahane with the North Carolina Symphony String Quartet and Jennifer Curtis
Cat's Cradle, Carrboro
Monday, March 23, 2015
I missed Gabriel Kahane's last performance in Chapel Hill. He was premiering the staged version of his new album, The Ambassador,
at Memorial Hall with a nine-piece ensemble, intricate scenery and lavish theatricality. But I couldn't make it, which means I had few points of comparison for his recent show at the Cat’s Cradle, aside from the album itself. This time, he was playing with a more stripped-down band—just him on guitar and piano, the North Carolina Symphony String Quartet (violinists Karen Strittmatter Galvin and Elizabeth Phelps, violist Samuel Gold and cellist Nathaniel Yaffe), and Jennifer Curtis on violin and mandolin—with just the Cat’s Cradle stage as his backdrop.
As Kahane told me during an interview on WXDU, he was looking forward to this lineup because it wouldn’t force the audience to have to choose between competing stimuli. It would allow his words to take the foreground but still provide some of the intricate counterpoint of the record. While I did miss some of the rhythmic complexity that undergirds so much of The Ambassador
, it was great to hear those songs condensed to their essences. In some cases, such as “Veda (1 Pierce Dr.),”
it was a lush ballad totally undermined by the creepy relationship it describes. “Bradbury (304 Broadway)”
still felt like a pop song, with Kahane’s falsetto ringing out like Jeff Buckley, but the twisting string lines came to the fore, reminding me of Van Dyke Parks’ orchestrations on Joanna Newsom’s Ys
. Only the title track
hewed close to its album character. It's a folk song that uses the closing of the Ambassador Hotel as a synecdoche for the decline of Hollywood glitz.
With the words foregrounded, it became easy to see all the care that Kahane puts into the stories he is telling and retelling and how the lyrics of a chorus shift over the course of a song in response to the actions of the verses. I also realized how so many of these songs are shot through with darkness, nostalgia and regret, all of which came to a head in the epic “Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.).”
On it, Kahane switched multiple times between piano and guitar while relaying the story of Latarsha Harlins
, a 15-year-old killed shortly after the beating of Rodney King. He used the strings to convey tension and loss.
But this wasn’t all
darkness. Kahane played a few hilarious bits of absurdist musical theater from his 2007 album Craigslistlieder
. He described The Ambassador
's “Villains (4616 Dundee Dr.)
" as “an exegesis of modern architecture and movie villains to a cheesy beat” and got the audience involved in a “post-apocalyptic singalong” for “Griffith Park (2800 E. Observatory Ave.).”
Other highlights included a glistening song by Andrew Norman, which set Kafka to a series of gently falling arpeggios, a bittersweet Kern and Hammerstein song, and the delicate, unamplified singalong of Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” that closed the set.
I couldn’t help but marvel at Kahane’s harmonic sensibilities. While his melodies are all simple and hummable, the harmonies behind him are constantly twisting and turning, actively resisting being boxed into “normal” progressions. It makes his songs sound fresh and unpredictable. And his use of Curtis and the string quartet always fit with the context of each song. Curtis, Galvin, Phelps, Gold and Yaffe all sounded fantastic, playing to their normal high standards.
This concert was the result of a rare collaboration between the North Carolina Symphony, Carolina Performing Arts and Jennifer Curtis’ Overtone Series. This also felt more focused that past Overtone Series events, in part, I think, because there was a single artist around whom the evening centered.
Kahane will be back in the fall to perform Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States
with the full North Carolina Symphony. Don't miss it.