Four songs into Megafaun's set at the Beachland last Tuesday, drummer Joe Westerlund climbed out from behind his kit, grabbed an acoustic guitar and stepped off the stage. The rest of Megafaun (now, with the addition of a full time bassist, a quartet) followed. They asked the crowd to get in a little closer; it was a weeknight and Tuneyards was next door, so the show was on the intimate side and folks were hanging on the edges a bit. Megafaun asked us to get closer to the stage and we did. Joe started strumming the gorgeuos "Second Friend" from Megafaun's recently released self-titled record. Phil and Brad Cook and the new guy (Nick Sanborn) sang three part harmony. All of this was unamplified, just four people singing without the aid of electricity in front of a huddled mass of rapt listeners. It felt spontaneous, a way for the band to get the audience out of their shells and into the show. It also spoke to a lot of what Megafaun seems to be about. Because I am lazy, I have listed those things below.
(1.) The new material is really, really good.
Lots of songs fail when you see them naked. "Second Friend" (and much of the rest of the new record) stands up to super close scrutiny. It doesn't get any rawer than three feet away from the audience without a mike. I'm emotionally invested (because I was there), but I'd wager that the live version I saw was actually better than the recorded version. Which says a lot. The set was heavy on new material and, much like "Second Friend," it sounded better live. (In the inevitable feedback loop, I know like the new record more after hearing a lot of it live.) I've had "These Words" in my head for the whole week. I wake up and I'm humming the last three bars. "Kill the Horns" is the best break-up song that I've heard since this one. Live, it's almost uncomfortable; Brad Cook leans into that one with such emotional intensity that you flinch. (Obviously, the tenor of that Lush song is radically different. But still.) "Everything" makes me want to dance like the governess in The Sound of Music. The songs that they didn't play from the new record are similarly inescapable. If they break out "Hope You Know" or "Scorned" at a show on this tour, I'll be insanely jealous of that show's attendees.
(2a.) Megafaun works without a discernible box.
Megafaun has always been a bit mercurial, with one foot in folk and another in experimental music. That might be more evident now than ever before. Something like "Where You Belong" was almost purely experimental, but still recognizable (as Megafaun kept making records) as something that they did. You kind of expected some folk songs (like, say, "The Fade") and some flights of fancy (like, say, "Guns"). Now, they're flirting with something like a half a dozen idioms. They still do experiments ("These Words") and they still do music that makes you think of modernish folk music ("Get Right," maybe). The show on Tuesday (and the new record, to an even larger degree) danced with several more partners. "His Robe" seemed like more of a straight gospel song this time around (and if that's up your street, "You Are the Light" is going to knock your socks off; it makes me think more of "Jesus Walking On the Water" than anything else). "Everything" turns into a Grateful Dead song when they play it live. "Carolina Song" makes you feel like Megafaun could have been the best bar band in the world if they wanted to. "Kill the Horns" reads like a torch song. "Second Friend" is damn near an honest to goodness doo-wop song. Megafaun used to do two things better than almost everybody else. Now it seems like they do everything as good as anybody you can think of, which is pretty awesome.
(2b.) The bass player really helps the live show.
It opens up Megafaun to express their immense talents. Brad Cook is now free to do all sorts of Brad Cook things, which works to everyone's benefit. Phil Cook plays a ton of piano, where they never brought a piano on tour before. (On the piano note, "Hope You Know" is the best song that Bruce Hornsby never wrote. If you don't have your hands on the record yet, that one is going to make your day when you shell out the cash.) It also makes you feel like Megafaun live in some sort of mystical wonderland where everyone they know plays three instruments at a professional level.
(3.) Megafaun will never be the biggest band in the world, mostly because it is impossible for anyone to be the biggest band in the world.
R.E.M. just broke up. There was a period of time, right when Monster came out, I'd guess, that R.E.M. was (more or less) the biggest band in the world. Your mother knew the words to "Losing My Religion" and they were selling out arenas; if there's actually a zeitgeist, R.E.M. was directly in front of it. Right after Joshua Tree, U2 was the biggest band in the world in much the same sense. The Rolling Stones in 1972, Bruce Springsteen in 1984, and (super big maybe) Fleetwod Mac in 1977 all work the same way. At those times, those bands were immediately recognizable as the biggest deal. (Clearly, I'm making some assumptions here, because I was really only concious of the culture for R.E.M. and U2. That said, I'm pretty sure that if you asked 100 people in 1972 who the biggest band in the world was, 94 of them would have said the Stones and like three people would have said ELO. Same thing in 1984 for the Boss. And so on.) If you asked 100 people today who the biggest rock band in the world is, I think you'd get a dozen answers and nobody would get more than 20 votes. (Sidenote: as I write this, I feel like I might have read it somewhere. Is this a Klosterman argument that I'm stealing?) We don't have a unified culture in any meaningful sense. None of us like the same thing anymore, because (on the surface at least), there are more things for each of us to possibly like. (Sort of. The biggest lesson from Our Band Could Be Your Life is that really interesting things were happening but there was no way for people to know about it. If Signals, Calls, and Marches came out after the internet was invented, Mission of Burma would have sold more records than Metallica. Because of the way the world works now, we can all get to way more things. There probably aren't actually more things, it just seems that way.)
All this to say that Megafaun has the talent (in all the ways that word works – musicianship, stage presence, charisma, songwriting chops, facial hair) to have a significant impact on the broader culture. In some alternate universe, your aunt is listening to "Eagle" while she chops onions and tweens are dancing to "Real Slow" at Bar Mitzvahs. But, because of the way things work in the 21st century, no single band can have a significant impact on the broader culture. From the outside, it looks like the band understands this. They know that their music is good and they know that people like listening to it. I'd wager that they also know that more people are going to hear the new record than heard Bury the Square. For Megafaun, being the biggest band in the world, means being the biggest band in their world. They can be anything all the time, which means that they always get to be everything.
Oh. And. We get the setlist. Word.