Review: Parisa Mahdad
Photography: Omar Ahmad
Talk about an obscure door. Tucked between car warehouses and a sketchy podiatry sign, was a metal door. This was working out to be my kind of Sunday evening. I like strange places. Unassuming and a tinge creepy. A black staircase led me directly to a black door, which opened up to another hallway and a curtain held together by packaging tape. Ah yes, Brooklyn charm.
The night’s first act intensified the audience’s sense of place. Morningsiders gave you a chance to leave the city for a quick sec- to the acoustics inside a barn, or around a fire sitting contently on dirt. The image of sitting among high grasses in Georgia came to mind on more than one occasion. It’s the fiddle, the stand-up bass, and the three-part harmonies. Not the three- part harmonies that are almost cringe inducingly perfect or contrived, but the three-part harmonies that are subtle, beautiful, and that lend room for loose shouting or wooping.
Morningsiders, who are normally a four-member band, were abridged this evening tailoring their material to the three-piece setup. The band met in Morningside Heights at Columbia University in college. They are understated- charming in their small talk between songs, but really they are there to play music.
The band’s new song, “Ashes,” will appear on the band’s upcoming album that they are primed to start recording in May. Elongated fiddle strokes defined the melancholy of this song. Harmonies were more subdued than the first, the band phrasing the harmonies more gently, more thoughtfully to mark the gravity of lyrics such as “It’s something you did, and we both fall down.”
“How Good It Is” similarly showed the band’s softer dynamic continuing with longer, drawn out fiddle and a sweetness that proved the band’s ability to pull off a serious love song. The bass line was simple but precise- its presence very much felt throughout the song.
At one point mid-song during the set, the fiddle became tangled in the lights, but the Morningsiders take it in stride, only adding to their endearing relationship with the audience. Whereas some bands may hold a façade and create a barrier with their audience, Morningsiders have a way about them that makes the audience feel comfortable, poking fun at themselves and keeping the mood light.
Their fourth song, “Lightning,” began with a strong driving rhythm with sharp fiddle strokes, a driving bass, and fast-paced guitar strums. The song reinforced the band’s effortless harmonies, which oscillated between elongated in the verses and more riley and loose in the chorus. Intensive bass slapping along with an impressive fiddle solo deserving of some foot stomping ended the song very powerfully only to be met with thunderous applause.
The audience received a bonus song from the band with a fifth and final song. It was a done deal when I heard “Stevie Nicks’ ‘Wild Heart.’”
It was most apparent in this cover that these three people were meant to harmonize with one another. A sign of a good folk band, the harmonies were precise but left room for ruggedness similar to The Head and The Heart. Fiddle plucks, soft finger picking from the guitarist, and limited bass induced a silence, a sign of the crowd’s undivided attention. The band left the audience captivated and appreciative of the band’s lingering spirit that renewed our own Sunday blues.
Morningsiders’ cover was a graceful transition to Mikaela Davis who in some ways embodied the gypsy spirit of Stevie Nicks- blonde hair, black laced dress, and the dreamiest of spirits radiating from her and her harp. She was joined by Kurt Jensen who lent his hands on the pedal steel and lap steel.
With an album recorded in Nashville and a tour that just wrapped up on the West Coast, it was unexpected to discover that the duo hails from Rochester, New York. Though Davis’ lyrics often touch deeply on a sense of place, her music transcends boundaries of genre and style.
Her first song, “My Light Is Always On” unarguably integrates Eastern influences, her voice mimicking a sitar and the pedal steel further emphasizing harmonic minor scales that shape her music as partially psychedelic in genre.
Davis’ voice has a quality of being paper thin and ethereal while simultaneously cutting you deep to the point. She knows what she’s doing. Her face is focused with intent, but zen, while her fingers precisely pluck the strings of her harp.
Did I mention, her harp changes colors? Definitely, the coolest instrument I’ve seen in a long while.
Davis introduced her second song by describing her time touring the West Coast and driving up Highway 1, marveling at Big Sur among other mystical stop offs. Her second song, “When You’re Away,” was inspired by being away on tour.
And California was certainly present in this song. The lap steel oscillated like waves, similar to surf rock of the 50s and 60s. Davis’ voice swooped up and down, beautifully slurring the phrasing of the melody. The song is essentially what it would feel like if we lived inside a lava lamp. And it feels good. The harp’s picking was active which gave the song structure and backbone through which the lap steel and the vocals could melt into each other.
Davis ended the song with a dramatic flick of her wrists and a final pluck on the strings of her harp. Davis exudes a cool attitude. She’s fully in control, driving her music, and no one can disturb that even if they tried. She is untouchable.
In Davis’ third song, we are again reminded of her consistent theme of a nomadic sense of place when she sings, “My lover’s been all around this world. He carries with him his song. I don’t think I could follow unless I had a reason, a reason to go.”
Davis played the final song of her set alone. “Caleb Meyer” is a folk song that Davis was inspired to play after a Gillian Welch rendition of the song. It was an opportunity to hear the harp alone in its true sound. The audience was able to hear how dynamic the harp can be- rhythmic, melodic, and ambient all on its own. Davis uses an electric pick-up for her harp, which further catches the vibrations of the instrument and gives it a more robust, ambient quality.
When I asked how she typically classifies her sound, Davis was genuinely at a loss. It was refreshing to see someone focused on the fluidity of creation rather than the label of what people would call it. She did note that the band is heavily influenced by Neil Young and The Band. The lap steel and the pedal steel, though typically used in country music, add dimension to her complex sound. Some in the crowd suggested a fusion of ambient psych pop. Whatever you want to call it, it was good. Fresh, new, and oh so lovely.
On The Sun closed the night. The eight-piece cast of cool characters graced the stage. It no longer felt like Sunday, and Monday felt very far away. When you watch this band, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching, but rather that you’re part of the group. The players are laughing and chatting with each other on stage. They’re all just good friends, and you feel like their friend too. A badass gal on the sax, two bohemian back-up vocalists, two electrifying lead vocalists, and a keyboardist, bass player, and drummer that feel the music hard.
The instrumentation is funky and jazz inspired, the vocals are passionately R & B and sometimes electrifyingly pop. Their first song began with striking vocals from Adam Bohanan. Singing is a physical process for Adam- witnessing a person’s body shake with the feelings of what he is expressing. That’s Adam Bohanan. That is what I saw when he started the set off with “I’ve been taking you for granted…But you can make it on your own. You’re just a heart without a home.”
On The Sun’s second song showed the band’s softer side. The electric guitar was melodic with laid back saxophone motifs setting the mood. The guitar solos reverberated creating ambient space within the instrumentation. And though the bridge starts out quiet, it builds into a four-part harmony repeating “I’ll be back at the end of the day” while Bohanan belts it out. The saxophone follows suit as the drums intensify with brushes, the guitar returns to its solo, and the keyboard maintains the ambient feels as the song fades out.
The band’s third song was my favorite of their set. It began with the keyboard playing full ambient chords while the guitar used high-pitched picking to give the foundation of the song a pop alternative feel. Layered on top were R&B and pop styled vocals. The mélange of vocals and lyrics such as “What about love, what about trust, don’t we understand” felt reminiscent of Bob Marley.
During the majority of the song, guitarist/vocalist, Dylan Charles, sang the bass line while Adam sung high, and the girls harmonized in the background. The lyrics were simple and the vocals also subtle, giving the song a very minimalist feel. Just as the vocals stop and the instrumentation fades away, the audience thinks the song is over.
And surprise, the band returns as lively as it could get. The band comes home to its truth. The drums and bass kick in, the guitar is strumming distorted power chords, and the vocals intensify in volume. Drumsticks are now being used and the rhythm is incorporating more cymbals. And of course, the song would not be complete without an epic sax solo. The whole band is dancing and admiring saxophonist, Janelle Reichman, bring it on home.
As a collaborative writing group, each member of the band contributes to the songwriting in some way.
The band’s fourth song was a great ending to the night. The guitar plays a low bass line complementing the keyboard’s high-pitched melody and strong drums. “It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it. I wish I could say it’s going to get easier. It’s going to be the same shit again and again,” Dylan Charles sings. Again, it’s a physical performance. He plays and sings like he knows what he’s singing to the bone. The dreamy bohemian backup vocalists, Stephanie Layton and Susanne Layton, swaying freely on the stage, add the vibes as well as the sweet high harmonies.
On The Sun feels the music. Every note they play, they live it. Whereas Morningsiders and Mikaela Davis help you transcend the confines of the concrete jungle through their music, On The Sun freezes time and makes you forget that you have to go to work in less than twelve hours. If not already indicative in the name, that is the real spirit of Sofar Sounds- feeling far away so up close.
Morningsiders will play the Manhattan Inn on May 22nd. If you’re up in Rochester, NY, you can find Mikaela Davis at the Montage Music Hall on May 12th, and On The Sun will be playing Rockwood Music Hall on May 28th.