By: Tony Wilson
Friday night I had the opportunity to cover the 2010 Rockin at the Knox music event. If you didn’t go for one reason or another let my try to express what a huge opportunity you missed. And perhaps motivate you to not let chances like this pass you by in the future. As a relative transient, whose official residence is actually in Rochester, I am having trouble trying to find the words that would properly extol upon you, the Buffalonians, how lucky you are to have events like this!
The magnificent landscape of the Albright coupled with cooperation from the weather set the scene for one great summer night concert. Concessions and and restrooms were generously available. Also special mention of the Albright staff should be made. Due to my last minute arrangements my name actually didn’t make it onto the list of approved press. However, after some careful explanation, the crew apologized and was more than helpful in getting me set up for covering the event. But enough about the scenery. I’m not a scenery guy. I’m a music guy. So how was it?
Let’s just say whoever was in charge of selecting the acts for this year should be in charge of the event every year. First up on the main bill was Martha Wainwright. Having no previous knowledge of her work, and the misunderstanding that she was Rufus’ wife (an impossible feat, which also shows you how little I knew about big brother) kept my expectations for this set tempered. But almost immediately I found out that she, like Atlas Sound, was no ordinary opening act. Equipped with an acoustic guitar and the family set of sultry pipes she let the crowd know she wasn’t just there because of her name. She opened with two beautiful songs, that for the first time almost made me forget my disappointment over the canceled (due to weather) Nekko Case TaTS show last summer.
She then moved into the core of her set, and perhaps the most notable quirk of the evening. Down went her guitar, and on came her special guest, piano player Thomas Bartlet of Doveman who was on-hand to lend assistance. For almost the rest of her set she proceeded to sweetly serenade the crowd with a collection of beautiful songs all sung in French. I found it especially fitting as she every so often would grasp as the song sheets on her stand for review of the song’s lyrics, something I had heard was almost trademark for a Wainwright. But she also somehow never missed a beat, or letting her arms and facial expressions stop dancing along with the staccato of the piano parts. Gracious and entertaining, her voice filled the summer air. She showed the arriving crowd that she was the real deal and no doubt made a few new fans that night.
Next up was Atlas Sound, the one man side project of Bradford Cox. As in my previous experience he arrived on stage equipped with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica, and initially I suspected the crowd would be treated to a similar acoustic set. However after a few initial acoustic songs he transitioned into a style which was more in line with what fans of his albums would expect. Not only employing the acoustic instrumentation, but also incorporating a series of electronic effects pedals, Cox began providing the crowd with a more Atlas Sound.
He began by thrusting on the crowd some of his more experimental and digitally composed variations before setting into a version of his most popular song, Walkabout, which made use of all the tools at his disposal. It was quite the take on the indie-friendly hit which blend his acoustic guitar rhythms in with the pre-fabbed electronic samples, of which he transformed into a cycle of backing electronically looped distortion. He then followed by up with the similarly popular Shelia, where he again adapted the album’s heavily electronic basis into a enjoyable acoustic jam.
Having gotten his crowd pleasing hits out of the way, Cox began showing off what his fans would probably note about him first, which was his exploration of the moment in musical form. Songs danced in the air, hitting the crowd with equal parts old school folk rhythms and digital chaos, every once in a while dissolving into sheer ambiance. Perhaps the third most important piece of the set was his willingness to openly converse with the small crowd that had gathered. It was easy to tell which demographic he appealed to as a few of the younger folks called out for songs they wanted to hear (he even jested that one fan should be hired to pick his set list from then on), while at one point I overheard one older woman sarcastically comment on his lack of knowledge about the mirror room being shut down (he had claimed to have taken a tour). For me the opinions for this piece became automatically biased after getting the chance to talk for a few moments with Mr. Cox after sheepishly approaching him in the Albright gift shop.
Despite the rock star persona he effuses on stage, rest assured he is a humble and gracious person who was sincere in his appreciation for being selected for the event, and thankful for having the chance to play for us.
Phew… read enough yet? Well, please bear with me because although I’ve probably exhausted my small breadth of the English vocabulary, I still haven’t even gotten to the headliners yet.
The band I was definitely the most excited to hear was due to play next. Though The National have been making albums for the last decade, it was not until about three years ago that I started listening to them. Since that time I have become an avid fan. The album that came out this year, High Violet, is in my opinion the best album of 2010. If you have a similar opinion of the album, then the set we were treated to most likely pleased you, too. While the band was never hesitant to hearken back to their roots, they were obviously excited to share their newer pieces.
Led by vocalist Matt Berninger, whose dapper attire fit in well with the formal backdrop of the Albright, carried each song with energy and charisma. Flanked on both sides by brothers–and equally important band lynch-pins–were guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dressner. But, The National’s sound relies on much more than the driving guitar pieces and Berninger;s unmistakable baritone. The band made full use of the stage with multiple keyboards, a percussion section, a full drum set, and a small group of horn players. Throughout the set each section, at one point or another, became the band’s most beautiful, and most important piece. Whether it was Berninger’s urgent howl on the politically charged Mr. November, or the driving and piercing drums on recent hit, Bloodbuzz Ohio. Piano took center stage on the masterful rendition of England, as did the wheezing accordion-like effects rendered by Padma Newsome of the Clogs (who is currently touring with the band during Afraid of Everyone).
Perhaps the most interesting moment came in the set’s final cut, the opener from High Violet, Terrible Love. As the band rocked the Knox, Berninger, overcome with rock star bravado, found himself mumbling the track’s final lines while traversing through the crowd. Quite a highlight for the fans indeed.
And while The National are not known for banter, they were certainly and openly appreciative of being part of the event that evening. taking time to share their appreciation of fine art, as well as the outstanding venue for the night. For a fan like myself they did it all. A good collection of the new songs, their classic hits, and some personal, less recognized cuts, ending with a total rockstar walkoff.
is point it was hard to believe that there was still the headliner set to catch. But after a short stage reset Rufus came out and greeted the crowd briefly and then sat at his piano and went right into his set. Perhaps that stage changeover should have required a little more time, as a technical hiccup made the beginning of the first song personal to Rufus and what I would guess was limited to the first row of fans up along the stage. The technical difficulties were quickly resolved and ao the entire crowd was treated to what I think can best be described as piano pop mastery.
Despite assurances that I would thoroughly enjoy the show, I still had hesitations. Those doubts were quickly erased as soon as I began to hear what I could only describe as the quintessential piano composer. While it’s not often that I find myself mesmerized by beautiful piano pop, in this case I found it to be the ideal way to end a great night of music in the city of Buffalo. Even though I was mostly unfamiliar with most of the music played by Mr. Wainwright I can tell you that his songs tickle the ears with pure delight. An almost expected extra was the duets with his sister, Martha, and the crowd pleasing cover of Hallelujah added to a set that never disappointed.
All in all, the night was the perfect blend of atmosphere and acts that complemented each other well. Having no knowledge of “how well” the event did, and only knowing that attendance seemed moderate, I feel I have to take this opportunity to try and impress upon the readers here that events like this are unique and it would serve you well to take a chance and expand your horizons. From this experience, I learned that Rockin at the Knox is a well-organized, and well-developed event well above whatever doubts there may be. I’m already looking forward to next year’s event!
Tony Wilson is a freelance music journalist. When asked
about his experience he says “I’m just a guy who likes music”. Follow
his musings at xsonicanarchyx.blogspot.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.