(Gillian Welch, Rhiannon Giddens and Carey Mulligan in New York's Town Hall)
A decade ago one of the least talked about but finest films of the Coen brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis, was released. Oddly, a film about a difficult folk singer in the early ‘60s who gets nowhere and soon will be swept aside in the flood that is Bob Dylan didn’t clean up at the box office.
More fool those who missed out – and today I’m looking at you Star Wars fans who now want to see everything Oscar Isaac has done, for yes he was the star of the film, singing as well as acting, and cat tending.
As part of the film’s experience in 2013, a concert was held in New York’s Town Hall featuring some of the stars, several more folk artists who could have been stars, and some who already are legends. It was called Another Day, Another Time, went on for hours and no one wanted it to stop. Yes, if you’re wondering, it was every bit as good as you might hope for.
This is part review, part background story on the event. Wonder was felt.
“THERE’S CERTAINLY A HIGH CONCENTRATION of very good musicians over there,” said Chris Thile of his fellow contributors to an astonishing one-off concert in New York on Sunday night.
Given those musicians included Jack White, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Marcus Mumford and “Justin Timberlake’s understudy”, Elvis Costello, you’d have to say that in the realms of understatement that comment from the mandolin player and singer of the Punch Brothers would rank in the top ten.
Not least because that Thile, whose mastery of his traditional bluegrass instrument is completed this month by the release of an album of Bach interpretations (music from which will feature in his not yet announced Sydney Festival show in 2014) and his band are all consummate players themselves.
That’s why the Punch Brothers and Rawlings/Welch were essentially the “house band” for Another Day, Another Night, which began as a concert of music from the new film from Ethan and Joel Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, and ended as a celebration of American folk musics, from bluegrass and country to blues, gospel and the remnants of Scottish and Irish songs brought over to the new world.
The film is set in New York just before the resurgence of folk in the hands of Baez (called “our humble, fierce queen” by Smith before she sang a song she learnt in 1963 from a Baez recording), Peter, Paul and Mary and one Bob Dylan. In it actors such as Oscar Isaac, Cary Mulligan and Justin Timberlake all sing in their roles as toilers in a mostly ignored genre.
Save for Timberlake, the cast, including John Goodman, who acted as a drily comic MC, were active participants in the concert, including a nervous but ultimately beaming Mulligan.
Both the film and the concert - inspired itself by a concert in 2000 sprung from the musicians who had performed on the soundtrack to the Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou? - drew from similar American roots music, crossing generations in the process.
Alongside the established names were rising forces in the revival of folk and traditional music, such as the eerie harmonizing Secret Sisters, whose first performance earned them a spontaneous round of applause from musicians backstage as they came off, the neo-Simon and Garfunkel duo the Milk Carton Kids and the North Carolina string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose singer, Rhiannon Giddens was the standout performer on a night not short of highlights.
The energy on Sunday night had been evident a day earlier in the second leg of rehearsals for the show where in an upper west side studio the film and concert’s music director, T Bone Burnett (who played a similar role on O Brother Where Art Thou?) strode around like a courtly gentleman from a century ago in black suit, off-white shirt and his grey hair nearly parted but long.
On a day devoted to the unexpected pairings and collaborations planned for the show, many of the musicians were being pulled into a song by Burnett literally as they walked into the studio, instrument cases in hand, in some cases only partially awake after early morning flights.
At one point a scratch band of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers and others were working out a number (referred to as “the Scottish song” by Burnett when he called Thile in) tentatively at first, watching each other and finding their way into the song described by Giddens “as mouth music [where] the vocals are doing all the work”.
In the background at least one of the Coen Brothers was watching on intently, if not hands-on then certainly plugged in. According to the concert’s producer, and Punch Brothers manager, Jason Colton, the Coens have been anything but casual observers, instead being “very very involved in every aspect of this”.
“They’ve been involved creatively all the way,” Colton said. “Not here’s an idea we’ll let you run with it but how does this back up their original plan.”
Even more than a decade after O Brother Where Art Thou?’s film and musical success, the idea of a revival of folk and traditional music by a generation of musicians and filmmakers who mostly have grown up in urban or distant-from-the-source environments seems both unlikely and questionable to some.
(Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in the film Inside Llewyn Davis)
However, Thile pointed out that the film is set in a similar period where amidst bright pop baubles and crass commercialism a generation of Midwest and urban music lovers took to drawing on almost forgotten traditions.
Of the artists on stage in this concert he didn’t have to look far for an example of how backgrounds mattered far less than commitment, citing Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings as “someone for whom every note is life and death and everything they do is a perfect example of what we’re talking about: real role models for me in the importance of being committed to every goddamn note you play.”