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Live Review: S. Carey at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge (4/16)

    On Wednesday night, I went to go see S. Carey play Le Poisson Rouge, and it occurred to me that folk music just doesn’t lend itself well to our current live music format. It seems like the folk/pastoral backlash has reached its peak, but simultaneously, the believers in this genre hold firmer to their creed than ever. That folk became popular for a minute in the early 2000s, a zeitgeisty few years of glory, seems much, much weirder than its quick descent back into mostly niche territory. Bon Iver’s ascent to the top brought with it a host of newcomers to the genre, reeled in by the electronic, vivid sampling techniques that Justin Vernon employed. In the wake of Vernon’s fame, several of his Wisconsin compatriots have emerged as solo artists in their own right, and Sean Carey is one of these. He was the drummer and one of many lending harmonies to Vernon early on, but now he’s just off the release of his own sophomore album, Range of Light.

    Performing and recording simply as S. Carey, Sean Carey took the stage last night accompanied by a full band: bassist, sampler, xylophonist, drummer, and himself, off to the right on keys. After the sequins and long-winded storytelling tendencies of opener White Hinterland, Carey’s band felt understated and communal—like a collective. They went through his new album’s opening two tracks, “Glass/Film” right into “Creaking”, with barely a word to the audience. This music is intended to evoke natural scenery and the majesty of open space—even the rain on a tin roof samples in between the songs attest to this—and despite the dingy, crowded setting of Le Poisson Rouge, the band succeeded.

    Do most folk fans listen only to folk? I highly doubt it, but they at least tend to inhabit cultural sects that don’t actively dislike the stuff. I wonder if what has so keenly raised my hackles against folk not getting its due is the hip-hop-centric circles I tend to run in. Perhaps it’s that in my native Northwest this stuff is as common as “keep Portland weird,” or maybe I just have a chip on my shoulder about the music I like not getting its proper due. But Le Poisson Rouge isn’t a “cool” venue embedded in the Williamsburg scene, and though it’s near the Lower East Side, it’s not part of the historic circuit of spots that helped define that area. I have been a music journalist working in New York for the last two years and have never been to the venue, and though I have my specific tastes, my coverage scope is wide.

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    Still, it makes sense to book S. Carey at a venue that holds tight to the two-drink minimum for guests who want to be seated—or even able to see the stage at all—but it reinforces the idea that this music isn’t associated with youth culture or the “coolness” of a DIY venue like Glasslands (who hosted FKA Twigs last night). Sitting down is the ideal way to absorb music of this nature, but it also discourages any sense of community that could’ve been achieved had the crowd not been so sequestered from one another. Pillars blocked most of the view for those of us in standing room, and, when I would begin to get carried away in the songs, the guys to my right who were so drunk they could barely stand would plow into me. I yearned for my small bedroom, laptop speakers, and quiet, where the album had felt like the revelation it is. Here at LPR, it felt labored, through no fault of the outstanding musicians onstage.

    The truth is, this is music that is meant to be listened to alone or in quiet moments of deep fellowship. Folk will never have the exuberance of rock, nor the exultant, performative nature that makes hip-hop possible—and addicting when in a crowd. Carey made no overt attempts to banter with the crowd or establish his individuality; he seemed content to just present them with the music sans hyping or his own agenda. Which isn’t to say that a close listen to his songs don’t reveal just that; near the end of his set when he played “In the Dirt”, the crowd stirred, recognizing the biggest song from 2010’s All We Grow. However, when he called Casey Dienel back onstage for a closing cover of Bjork’s “Unravel”, her sequins and labored dancing contrasted with his tranquility, but it was her affected, dramatic performance that drew our attention. Still, she’s no Bjork, and in the end, it was Carey’s quiet support and musical aptitude that made this cover actually a great rendition. Taking on Bjork is a big task, especially as a last number, but Carey’s band certainly pulled it off. Listening to the song, it’s also easy to hear the way that Carey has been influenced by Bjork. Like the John Muir paintings he cites as references for the album, Carey is painting music in ranges of light. What remains to be seen is whether his audience will take the time to appreciate the minutia.

    Setlist:
    Glass/Film
    Creaking
    Crown The Pines
    Mothers
    Action
    Fire-scene
    Alpenglow
    Chrysalis
    Fleeting Light
    In The Dirt
    Unravel (Bjork cover)
    Neverending Fountain
    I Fall In Love Too Easily (jazz standard)

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