VIVID Live Review: Sounds of the South feat. Justin Vernon + Megafaun + Frazey Ford - Sydney Opera House (01.06.13)

As a wholehearted tribute to the truly phenomenal power of blues and folk, “Sounds of the South” was an incredible show. A part of the Vivid LIVE programme at the Sydney Opera House, this is bound to have been one of the most exciting projects of the festival, due to both its great ensemble of musicians and stunning selection of material. Drawing upon the talents of Megafaun, Fight The Big Bull, Justin Vernon and Frazey Ford, we were treated to an array of stunning vocals and exciting instrumental sections.

Indeed, “Sounds of the South” involves the performance of a number of songs that were archived back in 1959 by the archivist Alan Lomax. The archivist had delved through the rich music on offer across Virginia, the Mississisppi Delta and the Georgia Sea Islands, and the show tonight proved his findings of such raw roots music to be absolutely invaluable. Furthermore, the entire group of musicians were completely open about the genuine joy that they gained from playing such beautiful songs, making the night feel even more special.

Offering a mixture of traditional blues, gospel hymns and experimental jazz, the ensemble jumped between various singers across the set. Indeed, the show opened gently with a folk number by Megafaun of North Carolina, before the jazz collective Fight The Big Bull also came on stage to perform a rich, heartfelt rendition of “The Banks of the Arkansas”. With this number, the audience was properly introduced to the true charisma of the show, as in addition to the strong melody on offer, the tune also diverged into a magical, floating instrumental interlude that particularly showcased the flute, brass and double bass. Creating such complex and beautiful music, it was easy to see that such a show was a far cry from being a haphazardly thrown together collection of covers.

In addition to the hugely talented acts Megafaun and Fight The Big Bull, the vocalists Justin Vernon and Frazey Ford brought a great deal to the show. Frazey Ford, the lead singer of Canadian act, The Be Good Tanyas, first appeared to give a smooth, jazzy rendition of “Cool Water Blues”. With such a beautiful voice, Frazey Ford was the perfect match for Justin Vernon, who subsequently blew us away with his upbeat bluesy delivery of “I Left My Baby (Sitting In The Back Door Crying)”.

Other highlights of the night included Frazey Ford’s gospel-style delivery of “Go Tell Aunt Nancy”, with all other musicians standing behind the songstress to be back-up singers. Phil Cook of Megafaun had the whole crowd captivated with his rich harmonica playing and vocals for “Anybody Here Who Love My Jesus”, with a subsequent instrumental performance being just as mesmerising for the eerie, uncontrolled ambiance that it created. Indeed, while these jazz-infused instrumental sections may have veered away from our expectations arising from the title, “Sounds of the South”, yet they certainly managed to break up, and add a greater diversity to the performance as a whole.

Further sure favourites of the night were the performances of the bluegrass gospel song, “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations” by the ensemble, featuring Justin Vernon, along with their fantastic encore number. While “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations”did a fantastic job of drawing us into that the immense feeling of the song, the encore number, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", by The Band, similarly kept us engaged whilst bringing a heartwarming close to the night. All in all, this was a stand-out show in every way, featuring an exceptionally talented and passionate ensemble of musicians.