Sounds of the South @ Opera House Concert Hall, Sydney (02/06/13)

Megafaun, Fight The Big Bull, Frazey Ford and that Bon Iver bloke pay tribute to Alan Lomax’s Archive of American Folksong at Vivid LIVE. JOEL TURNER reports.

Named for a collection of field recordings made by Alan Lomax, you’d be forgiven for expecting the Sounds of the South concert to be all grimy suspenders and aw-shucks grins; a good ol’, home-spun faithful tribute to the originals, so earnest it hurts.

When Megafaun take the stage, they don’t do a lot to challenge that impression – there are vests, banjo, and even a washboard! There’s a disconcerting air of Mumford to the whole thing; that is, of course, until they sing. In glorious four-part harmony, their voices resonate through the Opera House Concert Hall, over and beyond the microphones. It’s a gorgeous introduction, but it will soon turn out to be the show’s most faithful moment.

Joined by the Virginian improvisational ensemble Fight The Big Bull, the now fourteen-strong band turned Neil Morris’s keening ballad ‘The Banks of the Arkansas/Wave the Ocean’ into an immense post-rock number that cpould have been a track from the last Bon Iver album. This was as beautiful a statement of intent as you could hope for: no po-faced Woody Guthrie impressions here, just a bunch of musicians digging into music they love and finding something new.

“No po-faced Woody Guthrie impressions here”

Sometimes that exploratory mindset got a little lost in its own majesty; the long, jam-band numbers were interesting up to a point, but only those intimately acquainted with the source material would be able to see the connections. Thankfully, the “real singers” (in the words of Megafaun’s Phil Cook) weren’t far off. Frazey Ford of the Be Good Tanyas sang with her whole body, moving easily from bluesy belters to gospel numbers. In the louder numbers, the sheer volume of the band tended to overshadow Ford, but the a cappella medley of Almeda Riddle songs was by turns charming and scintillating.

It’s hard for Ford to compete, though, with the big name on the bill. Having once played with the members of Megafaun back in the days of their old band DeYarmond Edison, Justin Vernon has become an unlikely star after Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. This afternoon, though, he’s just another member of the band, albeit the one who got the biggest applause. After a so-so rocky number, Vernon showed off yet another facet to his voice with a dead-on Randy Newman impression that somehow, some way, shifted into a soulful burn like Al Green at his grittiest. As his last visit to the Opera House suggested, Vernon’s voice has become far more refined and evocative in the years since For Emma, but this (like the Kanye guest-spot, or his recent turn on Gayngs _ Relayted_ album) showed that his talent stretches far beyond sad songs for sad kids.

The closing number, a trombone-waving, NOLA-summoning rendition of Henry Morrison and Saint Simon’s Island Singers’ ‘I’m Gonna Sail Like A Ship On the Ocean’ breathed new life into the original’s staid gospel, but its infectious energy wore itself out by the time it ran out of steam. That and more would be forgiven, though, by the encore.

Dedicated to Levon Helm, the encore nailed the roof-shaking splendour that the rest of the show only glimpsed in a thundering, heart-rending version of The Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Maybe it was partly the endorphin rush of a familiar melody, and mostly due to the sheer indomitable perfection of that song, but it seemed like every chest in the (crowded) room swelled in joy at the sound of that famous chorus. Its grand sweep was far bigger than the original, but anyone there would agree: it’s how The Band would play it if they were still around.