Music is full of little miracles that are easy to overlook. One of the most fundamental is the fractured nature of performing as part of a band.
When you’re at your favorite venue, hearing familiar songs come out of a few, huge speakers, it’s easy to process it all as one thing, and to forget that the parts of that whole are the result of individual human beings putting into motion an unfathomable number of neural pathways and muscle groups in just the right order, at just the right time. It’s what makes being in a band so frustrating and so rewarding. When you get up on stage to perform with other people, you’re on a tightrope together, and the gravitational pull of chaos never abates. The universe does not want to be as ordered as you’re forcing it to be when you play a song.
After spending a few days thinking about why I so enjoyed seeing Clair Morgan at Strange Matter on Friday night, I’ve decided it has something to do with the remarkable way they walked that tightrope, and the daring way the band’s frontman and namesake (“Clair Morgan is and is not a band,” as the t-shirt I bought at the show explains) courts chaos, making the walk all the more thrilling.
It started (both literally and in the bigger sense) with Morgan’s guitar style. He kicked things off with a fast, repeating lead pattern — math-y, in the way that a minimalist composer might choose a specific set of notes to start running with — played on his gorgeous natural wood finished Rickenbacker. Those notes were being played too quickly to pick out downbeats or a key at first, giving the song’s beginning an impressionistic feel, but as vocals and accompaniment flooded in, the rhyme and reason were made clear, and a lovely, organized song came into focus. (I think they started with “Breathe Out,” which I’ve posted below, but don’t hold me to that — I’m still getting to know the band’s catalog.)
All this happened in the span of less than a minute, but those formative moments were deeply impressive (Morgan singing and playing those patterns simultaneously is a spectacle — I highly suggest seeing it in person). Even more striking was how quickly and naturally the group took that impressionistic start and got to that sounding-like-one-thing place. It can’t be a cakewalk — the other elements are many, and they’re varied in terms of timbre. Powerful backup vocals, vibraphone, trumpet, drums, additional percussion, bass, another guitar… Given Morgan’s acrobatic guitar style, you’d think the additional guitar would be simple and rhythmic, and while many of Troy Gatrell’s contributions were chordal, those chords came at inventive times in the form of accent and coloring — not safe strumming on downbeats. As a result, bassist Shannon Cleary’s lot involves gluing these pieces together and making it all seem seamless. He did so wonderfully on Friday, projecting an assured looseness at the same time he brought all the elements in tight with one another.
Of course, the job Cleary had throughout the weekend involved bringing even more than that together. Friday was just day two of WRIR and the Commonwealth of Notions Presents, the festival he’s spearheaded for the past four years, and one of the great joys of being at Strange Matter that night was the palpable feeling of fellowship in that dark, noisy room. So many familiar, smiling faces. So much rapt attention. So many videos and photos taken. It reminded me of something Cleary said when I interviewed him in the days leading up to this year’s event:
I think Richmond is in a really good place right now. Maybe in the past, I would have claimed that if people just took a second to show a little more dedication to the scene, we could do so many more things. Currently, we have so many people that are working to really chronicle this moment in time. Not even just chronicle, people are actively participating in this art. Music bloggers, photographers, record labels, musicians, graphic designers, fans, videographers and so on are just making their presence felt. And the city could always use more and more people like this, but we fortunately have a lot of people outside of myself that really go above and beyond their call to appreciate and celebrate Richmond music.
If there’s one conclusion I can draw from last Friday — other than that I can’t wait to see Clair Morgan again — it’s that Cleary really does bring out the best in Richmond’s music scene, and we’re all better off for his powers of pulling it all together.