Megafaun goes into the field

The band chooses songs that a folklorist gathered in the South

Staff writerSeptember 17, 2010 

  • What: "Sounds of the South" with Megafaun, Fight the Big Bull, Justin Vernon, Sharon Van Etten

    When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St., Durham

    Cost: $5-$26.

    More info: dukeperformances.duke.edu, 684-4444, 683-1709

You might think you work hard, but Megafaun works harder - if you could call the joyous racket the trio conjures up "work." The Raleigh-based group has put in a half-dozen tours across Europe and America this year, just released a mini-album and is set to begin recording a new full-length album in November.

First, however, Megafaun is making yet another recording this weekend. It's a program of songs from "Sounds of the South," a compilation of 1959 field recordings made by the noted folklorist Alan Lomax. The supporting cast includes Megafaun's former bandmate Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver fame), along with jazz group Fight the Big Bull and singer Sharon Van Etten.

"We had a couple of ideas for material, like just doing North Carolina music," says Megafaun's Phil Cook. "Charlie Poole and stuff like that. But even that was too broad, and eventually we had to narrow it down to just one set of field recordings. We settled on 'Sounds of the South' because it has broader elements, but the pool was limited enough to be liberating. It made us pick and choose."

The material on "Sounds of the South" ranges from spirituals to deep blues, mountain music, and even to children's songs. It has been a hip curio ever since it was released as a four-disc box set in 1993. Techno artist Moby give its songs their widest hearing with his 1999 album "Play," which built most of its songs around "Sounds of the South" samples.

"Sounds of the South" entered Megafaun's orbit when Phil Cook's brother and bandmate Brad Cook stumbled onto a copy at Raleigh's Schoolkids Records, where he was working at the time.

"I took it home, and it was just amazing," Brad Cook says. "It came out about the same time as [Harry Smith's 'Anthology of American Folk Music'], and it's like a more focused underdog version of that."

Then last year, Brad Cook saw "The Hallelujah Train," a live recording session at Durham's Hayti Heritage Center sponsored by Duke Performances. That led to conversations about Megafaun doing something similar.

"We were planning a season looking at the intersection of old-time American folk music and the American experimental avant-garde," says Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald. "Megafaun seemed like a good place to start with that. The arc of our season is from Charlie Poole to Steve Reich, so I asked them to try and link those two. This is what they came up with. Megafaun has some experimental tendencies, grounded in weird old American tunes. It should be great."

Of course, picking the repertoire source was just step one. There are more than 100 songs on "Sounds of the South," which the participant acts narrowed down to 13 songs to record. Phil Cook was particularly adamant about blues singer Mississippi Fred McDowell - three of the 13 songs to make the cut are by him.

"It was important to me to do Fred McDowell, who is someone I've always loved," Phil Cook says. "That's kind of what sold it to me. If you're into music, you're into tracing the roots. When we were young, our parents were really into Bonnie Raitt, who was a mentee of Fred McDowell. She covered a bunch of his songs on her first four albums, which is how I found him. Just tracing roots, following the lines, getting more authoritative the further back you get into the generational cycle."

She'll steal the show

Megafaun fits roughly into the category of freak folk, with a very wide improvisational streak. So you can look for the "Sounds of the South" songs to go through significant reshaping.

"It's more a reimagination than a tribute," Brad Cook says. "The songs take on a really broad range beyond traditional performance. It ranges all over, from Mingus-style big-band hybrids to all-vocal pieces."

Both Cook brothers predict that Van Etten will steal the show and that her duet with Vernon will be a highlight (those two have never sung together). Most of all, though, it's not going to be an evening of simple, straightforward folk songs.

"We've got an electronics-centered piece based on [Alabama folksinger] Vera Hall," Phil Cook says. "We're also doing 'Banks of the Arkansas' as chamber pop, and this fast galloping banjo tune as a weird concerto. We've done a lot of rearranging because we've got five horns, two drummers and bassists, some New Orleans piano. There's an opportunity for a lot of space, and there will also be some loud heavy [expletive] at a couple of points -- really heavy grooves, full and loud. How else can you pay tribute to Fred McDowell? He was a train that can only be rivaled by 13 dudes onstage trying to match what he did."

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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