The Fiery Furnaces Rockwood Music Hall May 4, 2011
Each time The Fiery Furnaces performs in its adopted home city, the venues shrink in size, the shows becoming ever more intimate. Surely this can't be a result of diminishing popularity or shrinking ticket sales? This must be a deliberate strategy, when the sibling songwriting team of Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger jump down from The Bowery Ballroom to The Mercury Lounge and, for this gig, to one of NYC's tiniest joints, the Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. Admittedly, they were playing a two-night stint, and at least it was booked in the more recently opened Stage 2. The older Stage 1 is so minuscule that the mixing guy has to clamber up into an eyrie above the door, enabling at least 30 folks to inhabit the floor spacemore a closet than a hall. Both of these Rockwoods are attractively snug for close-up musical experiences, but not the kind of habitat for well-established artists. Even so, Martha Wainwright did run a low-key Monday residency here a few months back. Chris Thile and Tony Trischka have also appeared recently.
Although the Fiery twosome represents the heart of the Furnace experience, this was an unplugged set, without bass and drums. The band is renowned for its consistent efforts to subvert its own risk of complacency, constantly finding new slants to their material, always forcing an unusual degree of chance and improvisation onto what is fundamentally a rock band setup. Here was an opportunity to prove their songwriting mettle, stripping away the repertoire until it took on a new life as a Broadway cabaret routine, or maybe darkening the songs with a harder-edged Weimar-era confrontationalism.
In the end, it was shocking that the Rockwood was so depopulated. There was room to move, space for the majority of the audience to sit, and studied silence enough for all to savor the refined experience. This was just as well, because few young rock bands are armed with as much profound substance as the Furnaces. Instead of registering any frustration for the lack of serrated guitar solos and jerky rhythm-shunting, it was almost as though the regular incarnation of the band was easily forgotten, as the acoustic duo became an in-the-moment all-that-mattered entity.
Normally, Eleanor can be not so expressive, physically, in front of the fully rockin' formationdeliberately deadpan. But here, it was as though she felt more of an onus to gesticulate, emphasize and otherwise shimmy, growing into the intimacy of the set. Meanwhile, Matthew was restricting himself to piano, crafting an entire rhythmic structure via his constantly shifting ornamentations and changes of thrust. Brother and sister both adopted the flopping fringe hanging over the eyes approach, paradoxically hinting at some degree of introversion, mixed with elements of a completely confident ease in the exposed nature of this performance. It was instructive to hear the details of the words in these surroundings. It was always confirmed that this duo pens the most unique, poetic and profound lyrics amongst any of the younger rock outfits, completely out on their own, in the manner of an older generation of artists such as Captain Beefheart, David Bowie, Brian Eno
No wonder Eleanor was occasionally glancing at her words, leafed on a music stand. These are some of the most involved narrative streams in popular (and unpopular) song. They never sound forced, stiff or ungainly due to such a heavy content: the streams always flow naturally and conversationally, imbued with humor, surprise and emotional precision. Exposed in front of a piano, the dynamic subtleties of her voicings were more apparent. Even though the vaulting collision of a fully-amped rock combo was lost, the audience gained another, more natural set of swoops and dives.
Eleanor seemed to become a tad irritated that Matthew would invariably finish a song with an emphatic embellishment. It was likely that she'd prefer a sudden end. A sharp silence. This became a running joke as the beyond-an-hour set unwound. Matthew would insist on an almost involuntary trill. A concluding flourish.
The Friedbergers said that many of the songs were receiving their first airing. It wasn't quite clear whether this was because they were numbers that the fully electrified band has consciously chosen to avoid, or whether this was by sheer happenstance. It has always been evident that the Furnaces songbook was invulnerable, but it was nevertheless instructive to have this confirmed live onstage. Many of the group's complex-yet-catchy ditties deserve to stand beside the works of, let's say, Brecht and Benny De Weille