Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2021–22 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Meanwhile by Bryce Rabideau, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelist Jason Baldinger. Read their bios at the end of the review.
By David Bernabo
Surrounded by milky, planetary spheres, some floating in the air, others grounded, mandolinist Bryce Rabideau speaks of the perfect song. Could a song change one’s world? Could a song change the world? It’s opening night for the ninth season of the New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Arts (CSA) series. Rabideau, joined by bassist Jason Rafalak and guitarist John Bagnato, present Meanwhile, an evening of acoustic, mandolin-forward music, music that is harmonically-complex, fusing elements of jazz, folk, and bluegrass into tidy compositions that never linger in one place for too long.
Over the years, the CSA series has shied away from presenting a band playing songs on a stage. As reviewers, we’ve also discouraged it. The argument being that there are plenty of places to present music in town yet few options to experiment with interdisciplinary collaborations or to attempt a bold advance into the avant-garde, especially at the scale of the New Hazlett Theater. [You can see where our reviewing biases often reside.] You can chart a progression from Mathew Tembo’s set in 2015 — it was gorgeous but basically an evening of songs — to Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s full-blown 2018 opera, Mirror Butterfly, which while rooted in song brought in an arcing storyline, dance, and martial arts. For a band, the CSA is a hell of a gig. $3,500 for two shows! Sign me up.
But this mentality also limits the potential of music. Yes, music as a very generalized artform is more mainstream than dance or theater or the spaces in-between. Music is more ubiquitous, infiltrating radio airwaves, movie soundtracks, TikTok videos, and basically every single commercial in a world that is evolving into one giant ad. But music is often cheapened by this exposure. Music and the labor needed to create it can be taken for granted. We all know that Spotify and streaming have devalued music to a point where past careers are not possible today. The music school as a market has churned out more fantastic players than the music industry cares to promote. So, why not invest in musicians? Given rehearsal space, production support, and ample time to prepare, surely a musician could extend their craft beyond what could have been achieved with a handful of after work rehearsals and a 30-minute slot sandwiched in the middle of a five-band bill.
Over 10 original songs plus an encore of the Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields tune “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” the trio craft a warm, highly tonal, complex yet very accessible world of music. I’m not exactly sure where the heartland is located, but these songs evoke images worthy of an early Terrence Malick film — a wheat field at the golden hour, a speckled purple sky emanating from the horizon, a cool breeze on a warm day or a warm wind on a chilled day. Rabideau’s initial proposition of a “perfect song” dissipates quickly, but it does remind one how subjective listening is. Music hits you differently at different times. Personally, I was coming into the show a bit fried after conducting a three-hour interview and wary of sitting (masked) in a theater for the first time in 18 months. But I left the show, relaxed and energized. This is an easy show to like, and it’s a pleasant re-introduction to the concept of sitting amongst others, allowing the output of the stage to seep into one’s mind.
Structurally, these songs have many parts. There’s often a “head” that showcases interlocking melodies and clever ornamentation. Often, those melodies find themselves embedded in chords, and a tune may have two or three or four sections. The vamping behind a solo often carves out its own environment in the song. And the concept of leader is subverted by shifting the melody to the bass in a tune or two. The ensemble feels like a true group, each player sharing the responsibility of pushing the songs forward while providing enough space for everyone to shine at times.
The press materials and the interview we conducted with Rabideau position improvisation as a major component of this song cycle. And yes, the compositions give each performer a solo or two per song. Rafalak has a knack for highly melodic bass solos that seem both off the cuff and like a song within the song. Bagnato can rip it up, effortlessly transitioning between lightning fast licks and tender, considered moments. He seemingly has ideas for days, but the length of solos is often quite short. Like many of drummer John Hollenbeck’s bands, the focus resides on the composition with less emphasis given to stretching out during the solo sections.
The stacks and stacks of ECM records that sit in piles around my house have conditioned me to hear this kind of music through that lens. I hear nuances shared with guitarists Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie, both guitarists that fold in folk and classical elements to their jazz backgrounds, both working with dark and light in their pursuit of beauty. But mandolinist Chris Thile (also of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers fame) might be the most direct point of reference. Rabideau carries a similar ease on stage, visibly enjoying himself, a light bounce running through his body after he completes an especially difficult riff. And Thile may also be an inspiration for how mandolin can lead a group, and for our purposes, how storytelling can tie together a set of songs.
Rabideau introduces each song with a story, often offering up an ode to storied elders like Thelonius Monk, Bill Monroe, and Return To Forever’s Chick Corea and Flora Purim. There’s a whiff of VH1 Storytellers in this approach and, surely, Thile’s hosting duties for A Prairie Home Companion. Brief background info is paired with short medleys of a composer’s work, all meant to provide the audience with context for the inspiration for Rabideau’s next song. It’s useful (even if our review panel had to warm up to the format.) The band is so together in creating their unique sound that even if a tune veers into the disjointed pounce of Monk, I’m not sure I’d recognize the influence. At the same time, the brevity of the explanations might not be enough to inform someone not already familiar with these composers. I’d imagine that part of the audience may be left wondering why these artists were important. To our ears, the songs of Meanwhile were more vital than their origin stories.
In the midst of our ongoing pandemic and a still uneasy time for public performance, Meanwhile is a wonderful invitation to experience art with others. Positioned on three large circles evoking the pearl inlays of a mandolin or guitar neck — designed by Tucker Topel — these three musicians offered up an enjoyable set of exciting compositions. One could argue that the evening was a low risk proposition for the audience — a perfectly executed one— but maybe we deserve something easy to digest, something soothing, something that just sounds great. It’s like an aperitif before dinner; this music settles the nerves. And looking at the rest of the CSA season, this dinner is going to be a wild array of challenging, zany, and poignant dishes.
Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Else Collective, How Things Are Made, and Host Skull; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.