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24 Jul

Dropped this iPod on the Trail or Beards of Glory

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The beard has a tenuous place in American history. The only famous president to have one was Lincoln, so that was a good thing, but he was shot, so that was not. Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus has one and he is unreproachable as the paragon of commercial wonder and merriment, but so did Allen Ginsburg, full of unreproachable wonder and merriment in his own right and style. Utah Phillips had one and he was a great singer of folk songs, and also a Wobbly. Beards are the domain of folkies, jolly men and oddballs, which is why it is perfect that the men of Megafaun are so stylishly hirsute.

The ex-Eau Claire, WI, residents moved to Durham, North Carolina several years ago in their previous incarnation, indie-folk band DeYarmond Edison. There was a fourth man at that point, another occasionally bearded man named Justin Vernon who split from the band to go back to Wisconsin and record a solo record called For Emma, Forever Ago under the name Bon Iver. Things worked out for that guy. Things also worked out for Megafaun. Brothers Brad and Phil Cook and drummer Joe Westerlund stuck it out, made a record called Bury The Square that got some all around great reviews. They pushed together a blend of folk harmonies and free jazz/noise experimentalism, like men tinkering at workbench with lathes and bits of watch parts.

The result is a disarmingly beautiful mix, one that is pushed even further by their most recent release, Gather, Form & Fly. At the 7th Street Entry on Tuesday night with The Wars of 1812 and The Bowerbirds, Megafaun put that mix on full display, with the audience willingly along for the experience. When kicking off “Kaufman’s Ballad”, the opening CSNY-style harmonies (although, it ought to be CSN, as there are only 3 of them) came in high above the sliding guitars and banjo picking with a delicate intimacy that was palpable in the crowd. The song is a dark, brooding tune about the story of Gram Parsons’ manager, Phil Kaufman, stealing Parsons’ body from his father in Louisiana to carry out Parsons’ final wishes to have his ashes scattered in the Joshua Tree desert by dousing the corpse in gasoline and setting it ablaze. That history, coupled with the insistent finale of “We had no choice, we had to try” set up a fundamentally American weirdness, a mix of passion, talent and excess that soaked through the layered instrumentation.

Getting into “Darkest Hour” took a minute, as the band moved through field recordings of nature and into a chant of “I have been/ wallowing in/side the darkest hour” that started unified and then broke into a round and harmony and then disintegrated into tape hiss, noise and more bird chirps and water dropping before Westerlund pulled the drums together and reigned the song into a clattering finish. The rickety structure though, is one of the main appeals of the band- everything is perfectly placed so as to seem carefree and nonchalant. Listening to “Columns” on the record moves through what sounds like bottles spinning around on a back porch hootenanny to electronic whispers pulsing and growing into something more organic before dissipating into the next track.

The band also couldn’t have been happier to be onstage. Brad Cook apologized at one point if they seemed too overly thankful for being there, noting that “Indianapolis wasn’t like this. Pontiac, Michigan, wasn’t like this.” as Phil Cook and Westerlund chuckled along. Minneapolis is a pretty close to home show for the ex-Wisconsinites, and they brought along some help with them in the form of Sara Jensen, who came up to sing the women’s vocal line on “The Longest Day” a swooning love song. Jensen has played with the Cooks and also with Justin Vernon before- check out this early DMB-esque number from “Mount Vernon“, featuring the Cooks, Jensen, Vernon.

It was really the finale that stole the show, encompassing all those elements that drive the bands sound, innovation and deserved success (Pitchfork gave Gather Form & Fly an 8.1 today). Check out the two part video, and the revel in the dynamic distance, the transportation from Appalachia to inside your laptop and the striking American mix of this band.

Megafaun Finale I- 7th Street Entry 7/21/20009 from Stacy Cupcake on Vimeo.

Megafaun Finale Part II- 7th Street Entry 7/21/2009 from Stacy Cupcake on Vimeo.

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