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Concert Review: Vashti Bunyan and Archer Prewitt, Chicago, Sept. 11, 2006

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Considering that Vashti Bunyan had to wait almost 40 years since recording her first album until now to release another one and embark upon a world tour, I probably shouldn't be too upset that her concert started about an hour and a half later than it was supposed to.

Last night, a hundred or so aging hippies, young hipsters, curiosity seekers and I gathered… and waited… and waited… to witness Vashti's Chicago stop on this unlikeliest of "comeback tours" at the Lakeshore Theater, a small but cozy movie theater converted into a concert venue.

The opening act was prolific local singer/songwriter (and cartoonist) Archer Prewitt, who eventually wandered on stage with his guitar and harmonica at around 8:20pm, along with his electric bass player Mark Greenberg and a setlist on a scrap of white paper.

The duo somewhat resembled a clean-cut, humorless version of Tenacious D, performing several tunes from Prewitt's recent albums (especially Wilderness and Gerroa Songs) and a few new ones, all revealing his knack for stringing interesting chords together in appealing ways and setting an introspective, serious mood.

The occasional false starts, false endings ("that was getting too precious anyway"), deadpan stage patter and swigs of beer between tunes lent an informal, two-guys-playing-in-a-garage feel to the set — which thankfully ended just as the songs started sounding a little too similar to each other.

After a brief intermission, a quintet of musicians slowly filed in. They would soon be accompanying Vashti Bunyan's vocals and guitar on cello, violin (or was that a viola?), acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, Roland synthesizer (a barely serviceable piano substitute), flute, and even thumb piano and concertina. Vashti repeatedly referred to these relative youngsters as "real musicians" — and indeed they looked a little like a group of recent music school graduates.

She introduced each song with a short description of its history and meaning in a lilting speaking voice that hovered barely above a whisper (and once joked that all her songs seem to be about either "standing next to a horse or getting my heart broken.")

Selections from her 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day and last year's Lookaftering were freely intermingled, highlighting how remarkably little her distinctive light, vibratoless, slightly wavering soprano voice has changed in all these years. I wondered if she would surprise us with any new and unrecorded material, but she drew exclusively from her sparse repertoire of about 30 songs.

Along with her sublimely beautiful music, Vashti's genuinely modest, bashful, good-humored, and appreciative stage presence was truly refreshing — the polar opposite of indie-rock smug (sorry, Mr. Prewitt).

Regrettably, however, the sound was often marred by excessive amplification, especially when all six players were performing together, creating an unnatural wall of sound that almost completely drowned out Vashti's vocals (this was especially evident on "busier" arrangements like "Feet of Clay" from Lookaftering). It's impossible to imagine why anyone thought that such fragile, delicate, chamber-folk played in this small space would need to be pumped through two towers of huge amplifiers. It's too bad Vashti didn't perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music instead — a similar sized venue with the ideal sound system and ambiance for mostly acoustic groups like this. (Maybe next time — if there is a next time…?)

Still, the irresistible music overcame the sound quality issues, and by the end of her set we were all on our feet begging for more — and Vashti and her group obliged with the playful "Jog Along Bess" as an encore.

Especially on September 11, a day now forever clouded by the spectre of terror, murder, and endless war — being in the presence of the pure, lovely music and spirit of Vashti Bunyan was a truly idyllic and renewing experience. Welcome back, Vashti. We need you, now more than ever.

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