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With a critically acclaimed musical tribute to the poems of Langston Hughes and a successful stint with the Carolina Chocolate Drops in her rearview mirror, multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla brought her trio — McCalla, violist Free Feral and banjo player Daniel Tremblay — to South on Main as part of the Oxford American's "Archetypes & Troubadours" series last Thursday, a final date in the United States before leaving to spend the rest of the year performing in Switzerland, Belgium and France.
An adopted child of New Orleans born to Haitian human rights activists in New York, McCalla relies on Haitian and French Creole culture in much of the work on her 2016 release, "A Day for the Hunter, A Day For the Prey." The trio began that title track from a complete state of quiet, broken suddenly by McCalla's tapping a one-note rhythm on the cello as if it were a hammered dulcimer, with the bow acting as hammer, then joined by Feral on viola typing out that same rhythm, then by Tremblay on the banjo. They didn't strum, they struck, using the strings percussively in unison, like they were communicating a message in Morse code. Tremblay, being two strings up over his colleagues, allowed the banjo to resonate bell-like overtones — harmonics, as they're often called. It was a running rhythm, a migratory rhythm, the musical equivalent of the tale of Haitian independence as told by McCalla, who related to the audience before diving in: "It's a song about packing everything up and moving your family to a new place, and all the decisions that go into that."
Earlier this year — and offstage, where she wasn't quite so beholden to the rules of decorum governing the length of one's stage patter — she'd talked about the song in a bit more depth. "I wrote the song thinking about Haitian boat people, refugees who travel by boat from Haiti to the United States, and the vulnerability and desperation of that position," she told NPR. "Even though that's a specific source of inspiration, we're seeing the same struggle with the Syrians heading to Greece, and we've been seeing it all over the world for a long time."
McCalla wore a long bronze dress that allowed free movement of her tattooed arms, toned from cello playing and from being the mother of a 2-year-old. With the ease and calm that comes from, as Smart Girls' Alexa Peters put it, McCalla's routine of "self-care, which revolves around yoga, cooking (this winter it was all cornbread and roasted vegetables), and writing songs," she led the trio through a host of songs so delicate as to require complete trust between the musicians, with no room for rhythmical uncertainty or sloppy bowing.
They followed "Day for the Hunter" with "Les plats sont tous mis sur la table," a number written by the famous French Louisiana fiddler Canray Fontenot and recorded a few years before he died, with McCalla quipping a translation of the lyrics: "Where can I find a do-nothing job? Where can I find a woman who's hungry when I'm hungry?" With a slow build, they presented "Heart of Gold," "Girl" and "Latibonit" with arrangements true to their versions on McCalla's two albums. "Salangadou," though, which McCalla recorded as a duet with New Orleans singer Sarah Quintana, took on an impossibly crushing sense of longing with Free Feral as the duet partner. "A lot of the songs on the album are about being disenfranchised or powerless, and 'Salangadou' is about a mother whose child is missing. There's nothing more powerless than the feeling you have when your child's missing," she said.
Their "Love Again Blues," with an air of elegance that'd go over better in Alice Tully Hall than in Ground Zero, announced blues music's kinship to early acoustic country music. They covered the calypso hit "Money Is King" by Growling Tiger (a.k.a. Neville Marcano), switching a lyric here and there to offer a not-so-subtle commentary on the election cycle. There was an easy bounce to "Changing Tide" that belied its devastating lyrics, an homage to McCalla's time in New Orleans post-Katrina when, she says, she was "falling in love with a place that's so fragile, ecologically." Then, "Blue Runner," which is about chasing a "blue runner" snake out of the room, and sounded like exactly that, a sort of Louisiana equivalent of "Flight of the Bumblebee."
McCalla channeled a teacher's touch for "Fey-O," instructing us to sing one sort of "Fey-O" in response to this, another kind of "Fey-O" in response to that, getting us into the groove before affirming, "You nailed it." Then, like the crowd at a Bobby McFerrin concert, the audience was momentarily in possession of that lovely, fleeting high that comes from being pitched musical softballs from teammates with far higher batting averages than your own. And, because the venue's sound engineer understands how to amplify each of those sounds sensitively and crisply, the musical personality of each instrument came through in technicolor; we heard quiets, louds, approaches, retreats, the heavy lean of each sustained note, the sharpness of each staccato note.
About 23 hours before the show, as the Chicago Cubs' World Series victory played on a television and Young Gods of America reminded a Wednesday night audience what a punk rock show should feel like, I'd stood in a bar singing McCalla's praises to a friend, having only ever heard the studio versions of her work, and fervently, if pessimistically, hoping the audience Thursday night would be rapt enough to allow the silences between notes to speak, to give the kind of attention that's broken only when the rattle of the cocktail shaker's in order. It was just so, and by necessity — McCalla's music has all the vibrancy characteristic of the Cajun music whose history it borrows from, but none of the trumpets or party favors. Although I have no doubts the trio could seriously get down with a barn dance or a bonfire if the occasion called for it, the dance floor need not be cleared for the show they're offering now. In fact, if you've positioned yourself in front of one-too-many maxed-out speakers without earplugs in your day, you may just have to lean in a little to catch everything.
After 14 numbers, an announcement from McCalla that she'd be selling merch over near the door and that "even if you don't want to buy anything, stopping by for a hug is ... totally an option," the group attempted to ease off into the wings once, eventually approaching the skirt of the stage for an encore. McCalla thanked the crowd and the venue graciously and asked, "How could we not come back, with people standing and cheering? I have dreams like that." I expect it's a dream that will come to feel more and more familiar for her, particularly as they take this quiet distillation to Fribourg and Paris (where McCalla is especially beloved) and where it's imaginable that audiences might, as this one did, consider it a non-necessity for a performance to rise to feverish pitch.