Black Prairie and Canasta at the 400 Bar

Canasta - Photo by Meredith Westin

Wednesday’s bill at the 400 Bar featuring Portland, Oregon’s Black Prairie (members of the Decemberists and friends) and Chicago’s Canasta was more than enough to bring me out of music writer retirement. And I wasn’t disappointed. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable weeknights of music I’ve seen anywhere in some time.

I must say Canasta’s first album in 5 years, 2010’s The Fakeout The Tease and the Breather is arguably my favorite album released so far this year. The remarkably well-crafted songs just plain make me happy, encouraging listen after listen, and their symphonic and intelligent Bell and Sebastian-like pop never crosses over into the realm of pretension.

Canasta opened with “An Apology” from 2005’s Broken Middle C release We Were Set Up (their first full-length), and the set for the most part alternated through tracks from that album and their new one, centrally featuring “Slow Down Chicago” which was dedicated to a sizable group of friends from The Windy City who were in attendance and sitting at a front table. (Since the band was last in town in January of 2006, that song was featured in the trailer of the 2008 film Diminished Capacity.)

The whole set was spot on, made even more impressive by the fact that they were first on the bill and actually done playing by 9:15 just as the club was really starting to fill up. Photographer Meredith Westin who was already enjoying the set was in heaven when the band covered “No Diggity” by Blackstreet. Singer Matt Priest showed he can really rap, but even more impressive to watch was violinist Elizabeth Lindau belting out the Queen Pen part of the song while holding a fiddle. Now that was somethin’.

Headlining Wednesday night’s show was Black Prairie on the first actual gig of their fall tour. Dobro player Chris Funk said the band had gotten to town the previous night and spent an enjoyable evening drinking (heavily, he noted) at Nye’s piano bar. As fun as I’m sure that was, it was pretty apparent the band and the attentive fans who had come to see them on this night had quite the time at the 400 as well.

Black Prairie - Photo by Meredith Westin

In addition to Funk, who is a long-time member of the Decemberists, Black Prairie features Decemberists’ bassist Nate Query and accordion player Jenny Conlee-Drizos. Rounding out the 5-piece ensemble (all fantastic musicians, I must add) are Jon Neufeld on archtop guitar and Analisa Tornfelt on vocals and violin (and at one point Stroh Violin..)

Opening with the first track from their Sugar Hill Records debut CD Feast of the Hunter’s Moon, “Across the Black Prairie” the band played through most of the songs on their new disc accompanied by wry humor from Funk. The album is a collection of 13 haunting original bluegrass and folk songs, with an undeniably southern feel to them, and a couple extremely well-chosen traditional songs. Funk commented on the fact that it was their first show of the tour and they weren’t yet sure what to play. Or even to wear, which led to an aside from bassist Query about how each year at SXSW thousands of guys stand in front of mirrors in Austin holding up a black shirt and a western shirt trying to decide which one to don for the show.
Black Prairie’s set Wednesday featured a song by the Carter Family and a cover of the Gram Parsons “Hickory Wind.” After an enrapturing 45 minutes or so it wound up with the band joining the audience on the floor of the 400 Bar for an intimate encore including a sing-along of Paul McCartney’s ukulele ditty “Ram On” led by Funk with the band singing along and the audience joining in as best we could.

Twin Cities band I Was in Vancouver held down the middle slot.

See more of Meredith Westin’s photos from this show in the gallery below:

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