Chamber-folk-classical-gospel band Au is more or less unique in my mind, but they can fit into many different categories: rock, folk, indie, experimental, potentially even jazz. And in some ways, it is performance art, and Au's appearance at TBA's The Works last night was an exciting celebration of music for music's sake, in front the requisite TBA crowd of art snobs and culture scenesters. Au's 2008 album Verbs has already garnered heaps of critical acclaim, but to see its multi-part compositions performed live--with a drum corps and 20-piece choir, no less--confidently redefined what may have become familiar to listeners. Main Au-man Luke Wyland started the show unaccompanied on accordion, playing a drawn-out two-chord sequence that gradually gained momentum. Before long, the drummer came out with splashes of cymbals and rolled tom fills. Wyland switched between keyboards and pedal steel as the show crescendo'ed like a rollercoaster making that initial, slow-hoisting ascent; soon the third core member of Au came out to play clarinet and guitar.
Midway through the set, four women dressed in black with feathers in their hair begun chanting from the audience. It was part of the show, of course, and they made their way through the crowd to take center stage. The singers, including Becky Dawson from Ah Holly Fam'ly and Sarah Winchester from A Weather, initially had a mournful Sacred Harp sound, but this would develop into a joyful gospel wail. Percussionists, similarly staggered throughout the audience, briskly clapped a martial cadence and came together in front of the stage; soon the percussionists and singers and band members were all playing a piece of interlocking parts; phrases would bounce between drums and singers, things would be loud then soft, and the room began to expand like a billowing hot air balloon. There was at least one hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment for me; it really is an indescribable thrill to hear unadulterated music coming from so many different points in the room as opposed to having everything come out of a centralized PA speaker. It had me imagining the excitement of a cathedral mass in the days before recorded music, when choirs and mammoth organs would rock congregations on a weekly basis. The show concluded with a 20-piece choir--all dressed in black, with white makeup around their eyes--taking the stage to sing along with all the other musicians assembled there. It was joyous, and Wyland clearly looked ecstatic to be leading the ensemble; while some elements of the music were smeared and not as clearly defined, the celebratory nature of it made any imperfections irrelevant.
What made Au so vitally refreshing to me after four long days of MusicfestNW was that its sound was entirely enjoyable on its own terms. Many of the big-draw MFNW bands were reunited bands from the '90s (Polvo, Hot Water Music, Scared of Chaka) with a punk influence or aesthetic--all of these bands come with history and baggage, a context that their music needed to be placed in. Without this context, and without that all-important nostalgia factor, the MFNW performances on their own terms didn't always engage--it was like they lacked inherent musical value. Instead of music for music's sake, it felt like you needed to know the way in--you must be this punk to enter and have had X kind of experience as a teen and you can only own these brands of shoes and vote for this sort of candidate. Au doesn't have this problem: It's a celebration of pure sound. You don't need to know any back story; you don't have to have personal memories ingrained in the songs; you certainly don't need to have a tattoo of the band. As Wyland led his very large group through his musical landscapes, it felt like the best school-band concert ever, and there's something educational in Au's music in that it is simply that: music, without politic or lyric or agenda, existing on its own terms instead of reacting to what's around it. It's music. It sounds good.