Wild Edges: A Musical Collaboration

with Joe Henry, Over the Rhine and The Milk Carton Kids

Hayti Heritage Center, Durham

Friday, April 11, 2014

The ambition was, as Joe Henry put it Friday night in Durham, to write a batch of new music that will “stand, no matter how abstractly or cozily, in response to existing pieces from the Great American Songbook.” That sounds pretty wild, wild? Yet, for those in attendance for the first night of Wild Edges, a new collaboration between Henry, Over the Rhine, and the Milk Carton Kids, the feeling was perfectly gentle.

The Hayti Heritage Center was as quiet as death. The microphones on stage were perfectly balanced. The musicians switched instruments in silence and traded lead roles with humility and reverence, only occasionally adding a comment on the tune ahead. “If you thought it couldn’t get quieter, it is,” said Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids, about halfway through the show before offering “I Only See the Moon,” an impossibly soft duet between guitar and oboe.

Such tender staging worked. Each song was like a treacherous tight walk for the voice. The more precarious that balance, the louder the enraptured crowd burst into applause. Backing players Levon Henry, Jen Condos and Jay Bellerose kept careful cool behind it all, but Over the Rhine’s Karin Bergquist proved to be the most valuable vocal asset, layering harmonies and taking lead with utmost ease.

The songs offered beguiling new looks at the intersections of gospel, jazz and country, particularly in how those styles can warm up to each other without calling attention to contrasts. “Long Black Veil” found a sequel in “Holly Went out Walking,” a mountain murder ballad. “Dangerous Love” tangoed with a saxophone solo. “November” zeroed in on classic Randy Newman, the men’s voices raised high.

The encore allowed a moment to celebrate each act’s individual projects. They started with a devastating version of Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan.” Joe Henry sang of “Odetta.” Over the Rhine closed with Bergquist, Henry and Joey Ryan gathered around the microphone: “All my favorite people are broken/Believe me, my heart should know,” they sang. “Some prayers are better left unspoken/I just want to hold you and let the rest go.” It was a transcendent close for an already-gripping night.