Richard Buckner
Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Durham
Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The last time I saw the enigmatic singer-songwriter Richard Buckner in Durham, it was a misty night. This time, it was misty again, which was even more noticeable in the outdoor setting of Duke Gardens than in the close confines of The Pinhook.

As opposed to that intimate, opiated-feeling acoustic set, this was a more voluble electric one. But in both cases, it was easy to imagine that Buckner brought the occluded weather with him, a physical manifestation of the moodiness and mystery that shrouds his songs.

On Wednesday, Buckner was performing solo in Duke Performances’ Music in the Garden series, which has almost exclusively featured Merge Records artists this summer as part of the Durham label’s 25th anniversary hullaballoo. Meteorology turned out to be a practical as well as metaphorical concern.

Shortly before the show, lightning struck a tall pine to the left of the main entrance in the native plants garden, searing a stripe down its trunk and catching it on fire. According to witnesses, the fire quickly spread to the brush and wooden fence below, resulting in a visit from the fire department.

“Welcome to North Carolina,” the non-native-plant Buckner joked at the start of his set. He reassured us that, while he often brushes with disaster, he never actually gets struck by lightning, so we were probably safe. “I hate passing through so quickly but I have to because I’m shifty.”

While Buckner is always a minimal banterer, he had more to say this night than he did in the entrancingly continuous Pinhook set—perhaps in deference to the plummy setting, which had an audience heavier on curious families than his diehard-filled club shows. A little girl in a pink dress danced in circles around her mother, who lounged on a blanket as opposed to sitting in one of the camp chairs provided, from the first notes of the set.[jump]
Like his songs, Buckner’s banter occasionally strayed into dark, poignant places. He plugged Sunrise Biscuits, where he had eaten fatback, then specifying it was miniature. “I don’t want you to picture me shoving all this food in my face,” he said. “Eating is kind of shameful for me.” Then, catching himself, he said, “Why am I telling you that?”

Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald, apparently keeping a close eye on the weather radar, anticipated 80 minutes without rain in his introduction. Rather than curtailing his set, Buckner raced against the gathering thunderheads through 19 songs, playing short versions. To me, it was a great choice, as Buckner’s catalog is so extensive and fecund that it was a pleasure to hear so many songs from it, even in truncated forms. And his songs, especially in the narrative sense, have little patience for pat resolution anyway. “Sometimes, the song just peters out and there’s no resolution,” he said. “They just have to stop. I realize that.”

Buckner alternated between playing with a plectrum and fingerpicking, between driving chords and sparkling arpeggios, using thin scrims of reverb or delay to get the right tones for different songs. His electric sound is naturally brighter and sharper than his acoustic one, but it has the same clutching texture, the same dancing accents in the high strings, the same outbursts of tangled blues.

Buckner is prone to playing fast and loose with his recorded vocal melodies—he essentially improvises on his own compositions—and was especially adventurous at this concert. Some familiar tunes were all but unrecognizable as he played with different intervals in the key, speeding up and slowing down, keeping himself entertained and revealing new dimensions in his songs.

The way he often came in late and rushed through bars made it occasionally sound as though he were having trouble remembering the lyrics, but it led to lots of powerful, inventive expression and imbued a sense of urgency and immediacy. On “Kingdom,” from Meadow, he extracted just the right guitar glimmer to convey the lush, dreamy album arrangement by himself. The set drew heavily on latest album, Surrounded, with inspired and heavily renovated renditions of standout cuts such as “Mood” and “Cut.”

Buckner also leaned on 2002’s Impasse, which he drew on even more than Surrounded, rounding it out with a few tracks from my personal favorite Buckner album, Meadow. He threw in a couple from Our Blood and some strays from Dents & Shells, The Hill, Devotion + Doubt and even one, “The Worst Way,” from classic debut Bloomed, when he was more of a brambly country artist than the oracular art-pop phantom he is today.

At one point, Buckner brought a keyboard onto his lap to play organ chords, and he closed the set with a brief, lyrical etude for looping pedal and EBow, but mostly it was just him, his guitars and that cumbersome, stuffy voice that frequently surprises you with nimble flights, especially when it tugs up toward a high and thin register that is beautiful in a delicate, precarious way. It always reminds me of some big, slumbering animal waking up when he sings that way.

“He has a voice like Arthur Russell,” my companion said, “where you feel like you know him.” I’ve felt that way for a long time because I’ve been listening to his music for so long, but it was good to be reminded of what drew me to him in the first place, which was exactly that—the sense of hearing a voice, strangeness aside, that I intuitively knew.

Set list:

1. “Hoping Wishers Never Lose”
2. “Born into Giving it Up”
3. “Mood”
4. “Straight”
5. “…and The Clouds’ve Lied”
6. “Collusion”
7. “Kingdom”
8. “Lucky”
9. “William & Emily”
10. “Escape”
11. “When You Tell Me How it Is”
12. “A Year Ahead)…& A Light”
13. “Surrounded”
14. “Cut”
15. “Song of 27”
16. “The Worst Way”
17. “Before”
18. “Beautiful Question”
19. “Loaded at the Wrong Door”