Sunday, August 3, 2008

Vienna Teng at Manchester's Riverfolk Festival

And we're back. At least for now.

I'm still absolutely buried in work as I launch my new business, but I wanted to talk about a concert I caught last night at Manchester's Riverfolk Festival, a tiny town about 15 miles southeast of Ann Arbor in southeast Michigan.

After more than 100 posts, I can't believe I've never talked extensively about one of my favorite contemporary artists, Vienna Teng. Described by many as a combination of Sarah McLachlan, Billy Joel and Frederic Chopin, Teng is even broader than that label, I feel.

I watched Teng perform live for the first time about two years ago at the Ark, Ann Arbor's well-known acoustic venue. It was a very good show, I have to say.

But Saturday's performance blew the doors off that earlier concert – even though Teng was performing much of the same material, mixed in with 3-4 songs from her new album that she has been recording in her new home of New York City. This was the first show of a mini-tour that Teng was taking after several months holed up in the studio.

The last time I caught her, Teng performed with a string trio, one of her traditional live configurations. This time, however, Teng was only accompanied by percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Alex Wong, formerly of The Animators, who is also serving as the primary producer of her upcoming album.

And when I mean multi-instrumentalist, I mean multi-instrumentalist. On my favorite Teng song, "Harbor," Wong simultaneously played the brushes and the orchestra bells. At various points during the evening, he also strummed the guitar, softly blew the melodica (so did Teng, as seen at right) and played a strange string instrument I've never seen on "Blue Caravan." On one song, he played a string instrument he had picked up at a booth only an hour earlier. It was pretty mindblowing.

I've got to admit that when Teng and Wong first took the stage I had my misgivings. Teng, after all, was forced to play a Yamaha MIDI synthesizer rather than her traditional grand piano. And rather than the intimate setting in which her music thrives, she was playing in an open air setiing where I was afraid some of the warmth of her sound would be dissipated.

Didn't happen. And I mainly credit Wong, who seems to be Teng's ideal collaborator on many levels. For one thing, Wong seems to have loosened Teng up. While Teng has sometimes taken a lighthearted approach to her music (Witness "1BR/1BA" from her latest Larry Klein-produced album, Dreaming Through The Noise), Wong's ability to float from instrument to instrument without (literally) missing a beat has taken the pressure off of her. And, she revealed, she has allowed Wong to start composing with her, which had always been a completely solitary process for Teng up until now. They showcased the song"Antebellum" from her upcoming fourth album, which they said should debut in February of next year. It featured a strong point-counterpoint melody at the end where Wong and Teng were singing a lá ronde. There was also far less meandering and earnestness than Teng's earlier performance – one of her infrequent shortcomings. In fact, she closed he show with a fun little stompalong numbr that seemed the very antithesis of that kind of work.

The other thing I realized as I watched the performance was how integral the complexity of Teng's time signatures are to the fullness of her songs. It's one thing to hear the wonderful "Gravity" with a string quartet. It's a whole other thing (and so much better) when you hear its unusual rhythms punctuated by Wong's playing. It really contributes to the overall depth of the song.

Take a look at Wong's MySpace page, which includes upcoming tour dates with Teng and some of his own material – including "In The Creases," a lovely song that Teng sang with him Saturday night.

Based on what I saw in Manchester last night, I think the best is yet to come from Vienna Teng.

Play "Harbor" by Vienna Teng

Play "Gravity" by Vienna Teng