"Does anyone here go to Yale?" asked Phil Elverum during Mount Eerie's set last night (Sat., Sept. 26) at the New Haven People's Center.
Dead silence. This is unsurprising on two fronts: One, the psychological barrier for too many Yale students between Yale's campus and the rest of town is infamously high, even when it comes to a spot like the People's Center, a mere four blocks from campus. Two, there was a lot of silence during Mount Eeire's set. Many in the audience sat on the floor, soaking in the trio's quiet, subtly nuanced sounds, and the room was very dim, per Elverum's suggestion (some lights shone from the hallway and kitchen behind the band).
Someone near the front of the room answered in the positive to Elverum's question. "I was just wondering if there might be someone here who might become president someday," Elverum explained. "Because there's this little island I live on that's right near Canada? And I always kind of... wished it was? In Canada? Or sovereign?"
There was a lot of casual chatter like this, from all three acts (including Julie Doiron, formerly of Eric's Trip, and Calm Down, It's Monday), at a show that felt, like a lot of People's Center shows, like a gathering in someone's living room. Elverum talked about how he doesn't drink bottled water, pointing out it takes two gallons of water to create one gallon of bottled water (someone in the audience asserted, when Doiron retreated to the kitchen for a mug of tap water, that New Haven's tap water can be addictive -- Doiron conceded it was "very good" water and passed her mug to the electric guitarist, who appeared to sniff it). Doiron, during her set, promised to go three songs without talking in between but absolutely broke that promise; she talked about how one of the challenges of raising kids was remembering at all times how strongly children want their parents to love and respect them. A lot of times the adjective "intimate" gets tossed around in reference to shows where it's not really accurate -- "intimate" doesn't necessarily mean "quiet" or "in a small room" -- but this was one show where the room, the musical dynamic, the lyrical content, the conversation and the audience's reception all combined to an effect that really did feel intimate.
There's a difference between "intimate" and "insular," and I'd been fairly apprehensive of the latter. I'd seen Mount Eerie once before, maybe three years ago. Mount Eerie is essentially Elverum and (sometimes) friends, not a fixed band, and at the three-years-ago show it was him and a drummer, and about halfway through the set Elverum switched to drums, the other guy switched to guitar and vocals, and they announced this was a different band. Fine, but... I'd come to see Mount Eerie. That performance felt a bit insiderish and, to me, didn't really transcend. I started to fear the same thing happening on Friday once I realized all three acts were different configurations of the same three people -- Calm Down, It's Monday was an electric guitarist/singer named Fred with Doiron on drums and backing vocals, Doiron's set had her on electric guitar and vocals and Fred on drumkit, and Mount Eerie was Elverum on acoustic guitar and vocals, Doiron on vocals and Fred on electric guitar. Calm Down, It's Monday were ramshackle but charming -- Fred introduced songs as being in the vein of rock, country and folk, but it all seemed of a consistent, loose guitar-pop piece. Doiron played a handful of tuneful, relaxed (if a bit tentative) art-pop songs. Mount Eerie milked a lot of atmosphere from their simple lineup; Doiron's harmonies filled in the sonic space in pretty compelling ways, and Fred's guitar provided tasteful coloring. Elverum's songs tend to eschew traditional pop structures, instead starting at one point and ending at another point entirely, but when one pays attention to the lyrics -- often ruminations on aging, the desire to be loved and the importance of persevering through adversity and disillusionment -- the arcs of the songs make sense, and the trio's rising and falling dynamic helped underline those arcs. At some point towards the end of the set, Elverum appeared deeply moved by his own lyrics, his voice quavering during between-song banter as he rubbed his face. Sitting in the dark, it felt like an intense late-night discussion with a close friend. It felt special.