First impressions are almost always an awkward experience to engineer. Some of the dearest friendships grow from casual encounters. Conversely, there is no pressure quite like a meeting encouraged by a benevolent third-party who is willing you to get on. A shared love of the Arts is currently matchmaking The Shed with New York audiences and the dynamic is much the same. Is it love at first sight?
The five nights that constitute Soundtrack of America have been designed by artistic, academic and diplomatic minds to make a lasting and brilliant first impression. The device is a neat one: the family tree of African American music animated and interpreted by the organism’s newest branches. There’s plenty of exposition to set up this architecture which reflects the pragmatic grandeur of the McCourt Theatre that the audience stands in. Steve McQueen (Director) and Maureen Mahon (Chief Academic Advisor) take the stage to introduce the evening and how it came to be. This intellectual overture bridges into Dom Flemons, the American Songster who acts as something of a chronological anchor. His use of mouth organ, percussive bones, banjo and songs from the archives draws the sonic focus to an acoustic, historical point. The whooping from the audience as he spins his harmonica in his lips, stomping on the floor demonstrates why this page in the African American Songbook is so enthusiastically book-marked, dog-eared and annotated.
While some of the evening’s performers deliver friendly sets, it is the bite and alterity of Fantastic Negrito that pumps the bellows, igniting the concept underpinning this first interaction with The Shed. His distinctive Mohawk, braids and goatee are part of the crimson blur set off by his red trousers and patterned tunic. His electric blues growls ‘Let’s break out these chains, let’s burn it down’ with exactly the level of critical anarchy that has characterised so much of America’s most potent musical utterances. 3 years ago, he was on streets of Oakland busking — now as a Grammy-award winner the American dream is as alive and quizzical as it ever was. Moreover, the bite of his lauded album Please Don’t be Dead translates brilliantly into the shed, filling it in a way that does make the soul-funk-pop of others such as Judith Hill and Samm Henshaw feel less intuitive within the evening’s thematic framework.
The evening closed with native-New Yorker Emily King who at one point invited her father Marion Cowings to join her on stage. They sang a song that had been in the East Side household when Emily was growing up —Chet Baker’s This Is Always— creating a generational continuity that seemed to land with the local crowd. Emily’s father glowed as they sang together, a parent proud of the modern talent and success that has surpassed his own. Similarly, The Shed certainly has the potential to be the talented offspring of New York venues that have gone before it if it embodies something independent and thrilling in an already crowded scene. What will New York make of The Shed? A more fundamental question may well be what will The Shed make of itself and that answer will take time. This was a varied first encounter and there’s certainly enough curiosity to warrant a second date.
There are still some tickets left for nights 4 and 5 of Soundtrack of America — explore the shows (and the rest of The Shed’s programme) here.