When Sam Amidon, Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly took the stage of Miller Theater at Columbia University last night, it was immediately apparent that the audience was in for an unusual show.
Nico was quick to point out that this performance of what they have been calling The 802 Tour (all three headliners are originally from Vermont, in area code 802), was going to be a collaborative thing, not a conventional presentation of three separate sets. For reasons that were not made clear, violist Nadia Sirota was absent from the announced lineup, although ACME, an ensemble of which Nadia is a part, performed beautifully with the three headliners.
The evening, part of the Wordless Music Meets Miller Theatre Festival, was never less than interesting, even during moments when it felt like a shakedown run or a dress rehearsal — a strange feeling given that The 802 Tour started rolling over a year ago. It was marred by technical problems with the sound. Nico, Thomas and Sam are not just Vermonters, but longtime NYC collaborators — Thomas and Sam made music together in Vermont, and Nico and Thomas met when the latter was, briefly, a student at Columbia.
The three clearly have grown quite comfortable with each other over the years. And that comfort level allowed them to reach for new sounds and play around with their styles. Early on, Nico’s super-strong personality threatened to turn the evening into a celebration of excess. Nico overindulged in effects and beats, overpowering Sam’s beautifully fragile vocals in the first number. And Thomas seemed spurred on by Nico, joining in some over-the-top piano flourishes. But things started coming together as the evening went on.
Nico, who noted that last night was the 10th anniversary of his arrival at Columbia as a freshman (he graduated with a Columbia-Juilliard degree), stuck mostly to compositions from his days at the university. His Skip Town is a piece that starts strong but seems to morph in an unsettling way near the end. Quiet Music — the title of which he described as “a lie” — proved to be a perfectly polished piano gem.
Nico’s string arrangements for songs from Thomas’ forthcoming Doveman album ran hot and cold. The first number was nearly swamped by washes of strings and Nico’s electronic wizardry, but Thomas’ subsequent songs, including Angel’s Share, were beautifully augmented by ACME’s reading of the Nico-penned strings.
The closing number of the main set, The Only Tune, written by Nico for Sam, was a spectacular, multi-layered reinvention of a traditional folk tune that let Sam play his voice off against a beautiful violin line (played effectively by Yuki Numata, a terrific young violinist, who recently moved to NYC from Miami, where she was a member of the New World Symphony) , and experiment with banjo and guitar against well-arranged effect. It was a potent reminder of what such great talents are capable of producing.