New Multitudes excel in tribute to Woody Guthrie

A review of the New Multitudes at the Paradise Rock Club on March 16, 2012

, Staff Writer

If Woody Guthrie’s name is going to be attached to any work you’re doing, be prepared to fall under heavy scrutiny. As one of the most beloved songwriters in history, it’s no surprise that folks got excited when his daughter, Nora, called on four big names in rock to write songs based on a notebook of uncovered Woody Guthrie lyrics. This isn’t the first time such a project has taken place – Billy Bragg and Wilco have been setting Woody songs to music for years. However, the combination of My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames (better known as Jim James), Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, as well as Anders Parker and Will Johnson, provided a completely different musical pallet.

The band, dubbed the New Multitudes, has been out on the road for a short tour in support of its tribute album of the same name, playing four shows on the West Coast and four on the East. They’ll join forces again this summer for a set at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. The current outing came to a close on Friday with a performance at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club. With a concert that covered nearly two hours of music, the New Multitudes demonstrated a diverse musical pallet and impeccable vocal harmonies. It all came together to create a show that was truly unique, and definitely a treat for those in attendance.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of fans were brought to the ‘Dise on the strength of Yames and Farrar – after all, these two guys can sell out major theatres when playing with their respective bands. But Parker and Johnson’s playing definitely can’t be discounted. Johnson’s drumming was absolutely fantastic throughout the entire evening, drawing a huge sound out of his kit. Of course, he knew when to tone it down, as well. For the most part, Yames backed him up on bass, leaving Parker and Farrar to cover guitar.

Taking the stage, the band leapt right into “Hoping Machine,” the first song off of the album. It’s hard to not compare this song to something R.E.M. would have written, right down to Farrar’s more-than-passing vocal resemblance to Michael Stipe. The song wove through peaks and valleys perfectly, rising and falling with perfect pacing. Vocal harmonies were out in full force right away, adding delightful layers of harmony to the tune. It was an excellent introduction to the show, and the first of many great songs.

The first set was a straight play-through of the entire album, top to bottom. As it turns out, it’s a very well-paced disc. Parker took the microphone for the next song for a much more subdued song in “Fly High.” The drums plodded along calmly, played with brushes, backed by a simple acoustic guitar and small electric licks here and there. “Fly High” proved to be a great country tune that struck a nice contrast against the more boisterous introduction.

One noteworthy part of the show was how well the band managed to negotiate its members’ levels of fame. It would be easy to throw Farrar and Yames front stage the entire evening and call it a day, but the New Multitudes operated as though it were the only act they ever played in. Each man had a turn at the microphone, alternating after every single song, which also entailed rotating through instruments. Some were better than others at drums and guitar, but each guy brought his own little bit of flavor to the instruments.

The middle of the set demonstrated some of the most fantastic musicality – many of the songs were taken at a slower pace, with a focus on vocal harmonies and simple guitar strums. Unfortunately, this also proved to be the part of the show that captured the least audience attention. The crowd started to get a little chatty during what should have been some of the most intimate and impressive songs of the evening, but they settled down again once the band dropped into “No Fear.”

The second set featured a lot of non-Guthrie songs. Each member performed two of their own tunes, first solo on an acoustic guitar. One of the highlights was Yames’ solo rendition of “Wonderful” off of MMJ’s Circuital. After a few more songs as a full ensemble, the show closed with a long-form cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty.” After running through the song, the band continued to jam it out for a good 15 minutes, placing dense layers of noise on top of each other, each member taking an extended solo. It was a great way to end the show, though understandably divisive among members of the audience.

Unfortunately, the New Multitudes’ tour hasn’t lasted very long. Four fantastic musicians taking the stage together is always a treat, and to be backed by the strength of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics makes the act that much better. They’ll be doing one more show in Newport before parting ways, but hopefully this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the quartet.

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