Earlier in the day yesterday, I asked Lost In The Trees front man Ari Picker what we could expect from the band's Grey Eagle show and he replied (with, I think, not a drop of irony) "a magical experience." That's kind of what LITT does — with songs that weave specters of stories, with vocals that soar and instrumentation that sways easily between chamber and rock — they create a mood and a space in which a certain sort of magic can exist.
And that's how the Grey Eagle show felt. Starry, sparkly, otherworldly. The thing is, I saw that happening, but I also knew that six hours earlier Ari was slumped in a chair with a fever, singing softly through a practice session to save his voice. On stage, there was no trace of malady, his voice strong and the band, circled around him, growing tighter with each song.
Tighter, but also looser.
The first song of the night, "Vines" (from this spring's release, A Church That Fits Our Needs), started with voice, piano and the low thump of kick drum. It built slowly, unhurried. It's a beautiful song, rich with imagery: "I swore I saw her, in her golden armor, float up around the house, oh so glorious. She came down and put her song into my mouth."
The story behind the album is an oft-told one: Picker wrote it about his mother's suicide. So, does knowing that these are sad songs detract from their loft and light? That's the question I kept asking myself. And also, other than the resulting album, how did that experience change Picker? I believe the suicide happened after LITT's last appearance in Asheville, at BoBo Gallery in '09. That show was lovely. The large band spilled off the tiny stage. At the end of the show, Picker, Pied-Piper-like, led the small crowd out to the street for a final song. It felt important — a memory in the making.
On stage last night, LITT was more self-possessed. There have been lineup changes (going from a rotating cast to a permanent one) and the polish that comes from hard touring. They're no longer a little local Chapel Hill Band, an unknown entity. But still. They carry mementos of stardust in their pockets.
Most everyone plays more than one instrument (except Picker, who holds down the guitar part and lead singing duties, and Kyle Keegan who stays plenty busy on the drum kit). Emma Nadeau played piano and sang, and at one point sang while playing a floor tom, and at several points played her French horn. Jenavieve Varga played violin mostly, autoharp a little, and rocked a lethal pair of studded heels. Mark Daumen played percussion and tuba and bass; Drew Anagnost played mostly cello, but sometimes he traded off the bass with Daumen (whose tuba also filled in the low end, such as on "Time Taunts Me," from the '07 EP of the same name).
The tuba-as-bass is just one example of how LITT experiments with instrumentation. When "Tall Ceilings" broke into a drum solo, an almost dissonant piano part rose from the rhythmic pummel. LITT has a way of using dissonance. This is part of what makes them an orchestral pop act (that and the cello, violin, French horn and tuba); it's also what sets them apart from other orchestral pop acts (those who use their strings to be all sweeping and angelic and pretty). There's an edge and a swirl of confusion to LITT's beauty. It's a ragged beauty.
Nadeau's voice is, really, another instrument. And not in an "I'm developing my instrument" way. She's a remarkable vocalist but it's the non-lyrical sounds that she makes — wails, coos, squawks — that take the mystical/magical/ragged beauty to the next level. The band's very pretty, nature-y, breezy "Walk Around the Lake" felt Arthurian and wild and, even from the safe confines of the Grey Eagle stage, it was apparent that this was a song about being outside of the world and not necessarily wanting to go back in.
Intense, haunting "Villain" ("Did God put you in the wheelchair, a buzzard here, who’s eaten every part of such a grey green…) showcased more dissonant piano paired with the soaring blend of Picker and Nadeau' voices, so practiced and well matched that together they sound not like a harmony as much as single, resonant voice. The instrumental break was truly orchestral, the sweeping strings just heartbreakingly beautiful.
It took about 30 minutes for the band to hit its stride. To reach full intensity. Full tightness. Or looseness. On the heels of one of their more symphonic numbers, they broke into a rocker — "A Room Where Your Paintings Hang" — grounded by Keegan's drum kit. And his carefree grin. And Nadeau's glimmering French horn. But there, even in the weight and earthiness of the marching rock song, the music lifted from the sliver of sadness spiking rest of the show.
From rocked-out numbers to introspective, moody melodies, LITT played like a unit. And not just in the sense of a well-rehearsed band or even a family, but more like an organism. A hive, ebbing and flowing around Picker, responding to his cues (cues so subtle that they might not have even been executed), each coloring the canvas of the soundscape, a brush stroke at a time.
A few times Nadeau (the spokeswoman for the group) suggested that the audience dance. LITT doesn't play dance music. Music for interpretive ballet, maybe. The music of the spheres, perhaps. Music to boogie? Not so much. "This is Asheville and I see you got that Asheville dance in you. We need some more dancing," Nadeau insisted at one point. "Well, not for the next song, but..." Still, her enthusiasm wasn't lost on the crowd.