On one of the most pleasant autumn nights in recent memory, a friend and I made our way to Mercy Lounge to see the storied David Bazan perform to a room full of doting fans and Next BIG Nashville (NBN) attendees who were anxious to see the year’s first headliner. The show, which also featured the Mynabirds (Bazan’s tourmates) and local Aaron Robinson, was curated by the recently (and sadly) defunct Paste magazine, the first of several sponsored showcases that would take place in Music City from September 29 to October 2 as part of a joint music fest and industry conference called Leadership Music Digital Summit (LMDS).
Just five years young, NBN is vying to position the city and its diverse talent next to similar creative enclaves like Austin and L.A., shaking the world’s tired and inaccurate image of Nashville as solely honky-tonkin’ in the process. Each year, the scope of the festival gets more immense, as Nashville acts perform next to internationally renown artists at the height of their relevancy. This year, that strategy couldn’t be any more realized: Yeasayer, Washed Out, RJD2, Wavves, the Hood Internet, A Place To Bury Strangers and Javelin are just a few of the artists that have descended on Nashville in recent days to open arms from the city’s creative, academic and business communities. In other words, while it’s still held in untouchable reverence, the Grand Ole’ Opry might not any longer be the hottest ticket in town.
For its part, LDMS brings key players from the industry’s creative, legal and business arms to discuss its state of affairs and, more importantly, what’s next. According to NBN co-founder Jason Moon Wilkins, the combination of the two endeavors is a well-orchestrated effort to “[tell] the full story of Music City and the countless crossroads, musical and business, that run through it.” In addition to the previously mentioned artists, thought-leaders from the likes of Pandora, The Orchard, ASCAP, CAA, The Windish Agency and labels such as Fueled By Ramen, Columbia, Epic and Interscope gathered on panels in the presence of conference attendees to hash out the future of music making, marketing and consumption.
While the selection of Bazan by the NBN team initially struck me as odd—he’s already played Nashville twice this year, for one, and next to the other headliners (Yeasayer, RJD2 and Wavves), his “buzzworthiness” is negligible—my speculation was ultimately misguided. Indeed, the crowd was rapt from start to finish (a true rarity in Nashville), and I’d almost forgotten that Bazan’s catalog is so deep that he could play far more than three shows in a city per year and they’d all manage to sound completely distinct. This, in addition to the fact that he’s just as penetrating backed by the roar of a live band or alone, devoid of anything but a guitar and his rich tales of spiritual strife and indiscretion. On this night, perhaps more than any of the six or seven times I’ve seen him since 2001, he sounded an affirmed, raucous note, aligning his always gripping lyrics with a zealous musical punch that will undoubtedly leave an impression for weeks.
I’d already seen Bazan last fall touring in support of his latest solo effort, Curse Your Branches (Barsuk), a record that is often referred to as his “break-up letter with God” because of an article penned by Chicago Reader‘s Jessica Hopper, which detailed Bazan’s evolution over the last few years from evangelical Christian to skeptical agnostic. That show, at Atlanta’s Drunken Unicorn, was mostly filled with material from the new album. In Nashville, however, he would revisit his Pedro The Lion work in droves, reaching back as far as 1998’s It’s Hard To Find A Friend before rummaging through later albums Control and Achilles Heel. He even tapped into his inner Martin Gore with an eerie version of “Gas And Matches” from his synth-heavy Headphones album. Joined by Blake Wescott (guitar and vocals), Andy Fitts (bass and vocals) and Alex Westcoat (drums), Bazan bellowed through more than a decade of fan favorites with an impassioned clip that suggested time has only made him more fervent about his craft.
The set began with Curse Your Branches‘ “Bless This Mess,” an angular pop song that translated much more vigorously live than on record. The guitars were grittier and fuller, the rhythm section like a proud metronome and the three-part harmonies were immaculate and enveloping. A few songs later came “I Do,” a somnolent vignette of a married father at his most desperate. The tension of this song set the stage perfectly for “Rehearsal,” a noisy, guttural barb at an unfaithful partner who is as angry with a partner’s “stepping out” as he or she is with the lack of creativity used in executing the act. It is this kind of dark humor (that’s really not funny at all) that has made of Bazan one of the most compelling lyricists of the last decade, a fact not lost on Paste, which included him in its “100 Best Living Songwriters” list a few years ago.
After the first of three Q&A sessions—a regular feature at Bazan shows for as long as I’ve been watching him—he drifted into “Hard To Be,” which took the polar approach to much of the set, fleshing itself out more loosely and calmly than on Curse Your Branches. “Indian Summer,” “Please Baby Please” and “When We Fell” followed, each a dead-on rendition of its recorded counterpart. A few songs later, the crowd exhibited an obvious pleasure as Control‘s opener, “Options,” crawled underneath Bazan’s aching story of marital delusion. Here, as well as on “I Do” and closer “Band With Managers,” Wescott imbued the song with a washy drone that took the room one step closer to a sort-of emotional paralysis that was only undone when Bazan referred to Nashvillians as “some of the most delusional people in the country” to throngs of laughter in the final Q&A session. Sure, his comment was subjective, but the man speaks from experience: Cutting his teeth on the fringes of the Christian music industry before disavowing a belief (sometimes caustically) in the original sin narrative has undoubtedly brought on a healthy amount of righteous disdain from within the city, which to many is known as the “Christian Mecca” because it harbors more churches per-capita than any other city in the U.S. Of course, it’s possible he was referring to the myriad of musical pipe dreams littering Davidson County, but I’m going with the former thesis, if for no other reason than it hits closer to home for him.
While the brooding, drawn out intensity of “Bands With Managers” closed out the set in characteristically affective fashion, it was Achilles Heel‘s “The Fleecing” that sent me thoughtful into the night. Easily one of my favorite songs of his, it’s always spoken to me because of the way Bazan articulates the ultimate fallibility of spiritual discourse between believers and non-believers and its hinting at the godly ennui that would be fully realized on Curse Your Branches. On record, he sings in the chorus, “I could buy you a drink/I could tell you all about it/I could tell you why I doubt it/And why I still believe.” Six years, lots of questions and a drinking problem later, Bazan now closes the final line with “don’t” believe, before adding, “I was blind, but now I see,” satirizing a religious idiom to poignant effect. For most in the room, I’m assuming Bazan’s worldview shift is a non-issue, but for those who were perhaps introduced to his work through starkly beautiful covers of hymns or early meditations on grace, these lyrics had to invite a wince, or a tightening of the chest, as their hero—the only Christian artist who truly spoke to them for years—denounced it all with vehement courage right before their very eyes. To be (really) sure, living in Nashville does not a disciple make, but Bazan of all people knows how a message like that will be telegraphed in a city swarming with religious institutions. And, it works, no matter what you believe.
—Ryan Burleson; photo by Patrick Copeland
Setlist after the jump.
Bless This Mess
Gas and Matches
I Am Always the One Who Calls
Of Minor Prophets and Their Prostitute Wives
Start Without Me
[Break For Questions]
Hard To Be
Please Baby Please
When We Fell
[Break For Questions]
When They Really Get To Know You They Will Run
How I Remember
[Break For Questions]
Bands With Managers