Words and Photo // Brian Hodge
The Bowerbirds have perched a lofty and unique place in today’s musical landscape, nesting a home in the unfettered space close to Bon Iver (they recorded their aptly-titled The Clearing at Vernon’s Wisconsin April Base studio), but in a fashion all their own.
Or, as Phil Moore puts it in “This Year,”: “We’ll find a clearing in the forest of our hearts.” So the group has successfully found a clearing in today’s independent folk scene, a favorable position on full display in a recent Rhode Island performance.
To begin, Moore solely took the stage in a style befitting his tunes – simply and sincerely. Moore initially dipped his toes into The Clearing, namely “Walk The Furrows” and “Sweet Moment.” His versions, reminiscent of a simple coffeehouse set, was an excellent introduction to the evening. with Moore’s falsetto croons carrying easily throughout the club.
Soon, he was joined onstage by Beth Tacular and percussionist Yan Westerlund. They quickly launched into “House of Diamonds,” the subtle-but-stellar opener from 2009’s Upper Air. Tacular, backing multiple Korgs, sweetly supported the live arrangements throughout with perfectly placed vocals and fulfilling piano parts.
The three quickly squelched any questions of how their lush arrangements would translate to the live setting. With a bit of creativity and tacit talent, the performance – as good ones do – rekindled the records, without simply recreating or reflecting them.
The group continuously kept The Clearing on shuffle, bending “In The Yard” into a fuzzy affair and snapping “Stitch the Hem” into a quicker, calypso-sounding serenade. Westerlund, perfectly steady throughout, capably kept the whole thing buoyant with a breezy backbeat. The trend continued with a wistful version of “Northern Lights,” the tune bouncing brightly on Tacular’s brisk piano.
“Island Dweller,” a protest song from a heretofore-unknown side project also kept things interesting, with Moore’s electric guitar carving out a different-in-a-welcome-way look for the group.
But the Bowerbirds are at their best in the comfortable, middle tempos and bright, mid-range melodies. They closed the evening with the wonderful “Tuck The Darkness In,” as Moore’s allusion to time as nature’s incessant swindler ringing sincerely in the audience’s ears.
Basia Bulat beautifully opened the evening. The Canadian singer-songwriter made an impressive Rhode Island debut, smoothly shifting between attractive folk melodies to tunes on pop music’s alluring border.
Her musicianship was immediately apparent, breaking out an autoharp, a turn-of-the-century American harp, and ending the evening with swift fingerpicking on a ukulele. It is, of course, one thing to trot these instruments out, but Bulat handled them all with equal aplomb. Expect to hear more from her in the future.