This past week we watched a storm devastate our city. We felt the weight of the sky bearing down on us, reminding us that in some ways we are powerless. During the days after the winds died down, we spent almost all of our time feeling thankful that we had our lives and our loved ones, despite what was lost.
It was a reminder that the ways we feel and express our gratitude for life must be purposeful and can be grand.
We can gather in a place where the roof is high enough so that the weight of the world doesn’t sit directly on our heads and shoulders. And we can fill that high ceiling with song to show that we have the power of grace to return to the sky. As Adam Arcuragi did this past Spring in a chapel in Harlem when we met him there to record. His message of gratitude for life gives a perfect sense of calm in this week of uncertainty.
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There are things that the Presto seems to know inherently, surprising and wonderful things that pop out of our recordings when we play them back. The tapping of a foot on a floorboard, the chirping of a bird filtered through glass, the high praise-pitch of a fife brightly bouncing down a dark alley.
The Wandering assembled late one May night on the concrete behind Joe’s Pub in New York to play the classic gospel “Glory, Glory,” the five members of the Memphis group carefully shuffling themselves around to mix the sounds. Luther Dickinson, Valerie June, Shannon McNally and Amy LaVere each found their place, and the voices and instruments mixed beautifully as it all came together. Everywhere Shardé Thomas stood, however, the Presto seemed to hear her fife particularly. It’s the fife that her grandfather, the great Othar Turner, made with his own hands. And it was almost as if the Presto knew that sound, like the voice of an old friend carrying across a room.
It reminded us that the fife and the Presto both had lives before we were born, have a history we can only imagine, might have known each other in another life as contemporaries.
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Sometimes there is a feeling of knowing a place well, though you’ve never been. We instantly felt at home in the apartment, though none of us had set foot there before. It was a beautiful, sunny loft in Soho that felt filled to its 20-foot ceilings with Spring. In the street below bike bells cha-chinged and jackhammers clanged. We set up while Joe and Lisa rehearsed with the windows wide open, knowing we’d have to close them for a clean recording, but in no hurry to stop the breeze from carrying the city up and in.
The “Red River Valley” of Joe and Lisa’s song fills us with comfort, though it’s not a place any of us have ever called home. Joe traveled from California, Lisa from Ireland. New York, where we all met that morning, falls right in the middle. And the song became the familiar meeting point between their two voices. Harmonies sung in a living room, where a family meets every day, sound like home. Wherever that may be.
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The Flipside: Lisa Hannigan & Joe Henry “Little Bird”
Because they were in the midst of touring together, Joe and Lisa had one of her songs already in their minds and fingers, ready to play for the Flipside of their 78. It came from an album of Lisa’s that Joe had produced, and it was clear from the wild focus of their duet performance of “Little Bird” that they had developed a deep relationship with the song together. The breath was swept out of the room from the moment they began. Even the street construction found itself struck silent by the command of their singing.
This weekend marked The 78 Project’s one year anniversary. Labor Day weekend of 2011 we had a marathon first three shoots, Dawn Landes in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Reverend John DeLore and Kara Suzanne at the High Horse Saloon, and The Mynabirds in our backyard in Williamsburg (the episodes from those shoots are reposted below!) We knew then that something special was happening.
We talked many times this year about a time when we’d be on the road, traveling to record. Now that we are, it’s every bit as challenging and spectacular as we dreamed it could be. We’re so thankful for the wonderful generosity of the musicians, friends and enthusiasts who have helped us to take The 78 Project this far. This first year’s work is dedicated to you all.
The first three Full-length Episodes of The 78 Project, shot August 31 – September 1, 2011 in New York:
Our journey to make The 78 Project Feature-length documentary film starts today. This morning the Presto will be packed in snugly with a stash of blank discs and new needles, our Canons with a cache of memory cards and lenses. There will be no room left for anything else, so we might need to borrow your socks.
We are headed to Philadelphia, PA, Washington, DC, Durham, NC, Nashville and Memphis, TN, and points in between. This leg of the journey goes until early September, but we’ll be traveling for the film shoots for the rest of 2012, so we’ll be visiting many, many more places.
There will be photos every day, we promise. They’ll go straight to our Facebook, so “like” us there to see ’em! Also follow us on Twitter for daily news. If you’re on our Email list, we’ll catch you up each week on events and stories, and send you sounds and clips that we’ve captured. If you’re not signed up for our list yet, enter your email in the field on our homepage sidebar.
We’ve never been so excited as we are at this moment, preparing to meet new people, hear new songs, visit hometowns and hometown haunts and seek out music where it lives. We’re grateful to have you along for this adventure!
Thank you to our amazing new friends at Stumptown Coffee Roasters for fueling our mornings on the road!
Where ya headed? We meet like fellow passengers at the end of a nearly abandoned train car in Brooklyn. But the train doesn’t budge, because we’re not there to travel, not really. It’s dark inside, and we light candles, it’s chilly outside so we bundle up. It’s silent at first, without the chugging of the engine and the tripping of the steel wheels over hundreds of miles of track, so we fill the space with music.
She’s a New Yorker now, but Valerie June brought her Memphis along in her reedy, bouyant voice. And as she sings the sweet longing for a long-distance love in “Happy or Lonesome,” we almost expect her hometown to answer. But it’s the Presto that does, in the end, with a satisfying click.
This train’s not leaving the station, but it doesn’t need to. So what if we’re rooted in place, we’ll still get carried away.
Thank you so, so much to Pete’s Candy Store for giving us such a warm Brooklyn welcome, and for mixing our 78 Sours so strong!
Willie is one bad character. First we heard of him, he was the wolf who lured “Pretty Polly” to an early grave. He disappeared off to sea, and we thought we’d seen his last, until Vandaveer arrived with news.
With harmonies mournful, chilling and precise, Mark and Rose sang us the story of his terrible crime in “Banks of the Ohio.” The banjo plucked out a tune as tense as can be. It was too tragic to be believed, he’d taken another life.
We listened back, through the crackle of the 78 and the thickness of the hot winter room. It sounded like our man Willie, no doubt about that.
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Right at the outset they proclaim “Death is here!” as if after the events of the first side of Vandaveer’s acetate, there was any other possible outcome.
There was a playful confidence in his motions as he got out his guitar and told stories of hats and ukuleles and cowboys and family. Industrial street noises and a lively chill air seeped in through the walls of the secret Brooklyn fishing club as we set up to record. “Old Paint” is a distinct and fundamental piece of Loudon’s personal musical history, and he put all of his years of performance into those three minutes of acetate. The song is so much a part of him that he played it with a concentration nearing transcendent, his voice so familiar to us that it filled the space and we could no longer hear the trucks passing. The click of the switch announced the end and the Presto’s turntable slowed. The things best known to us are sometimes most able to surprise.
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Special thanks again to the Brooklyn Rod & Gun for making us honorary members for the afternoon. We love your peanuts.