Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019

The ArtsCenter, Carrboro

It’s no secret that Mountain Man is one of the finest folk bands in the Triangle, and each member’s other endeavors—Amelia Meath’s Sylvan Esso, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig’s Daughter of Swords, and Molly Sarlé’s eponymous project—are just as phenomenal. A week after Sylvan Esso blew away DPAC (with both Sarlé and Sauser-Monnig on backup vocals), Daughter of Swords did the same at the much more intimate ArtsCenter in Carrboro.

Daughter of Swords shows have often been solo—just Sauser-Monnig with a gorgeous old Gibson acoustic. But this special hometown show was differentiated by the addition of the Dawnbreaker band. Joining Sauser-Monnig were Ryan Gustafson on electric guitar, Jeff Crawford on bass, Yan Westerlund on drums, and Nick Sanborn on synthesizer and electronics.

After an excellent opening set by Jake Xerxes Fussell, Sauser-Monnig took the stage, singing a short a capella tune in her breezy, tranquil register. She performed another song  unaccompanied before inviting the full band up to play a few of the more embellished tracks from Dawnbreaker, such as “Gem” and “Shining Woman.”

The full-band experience wasn’t a drastic change from the recording, although it was certainly different than her performance at this year’s Hopscotch Music Festival. That said, each musician offered a unique enhancement.

Sanborn contributed modest melodies on his vintage Juno synthesizer, while also adding light drum programming and occasional gusts of granular synthesis. A stand-out moment came on “Grasses,” when he delicately contorted a lo-fi sample of Sauser-Monnig’s voice to mimic the wind.

Westerlund provided the main back beat and, when Sanborn was running his Korg drum machine, accented the top. Like the synthesized drums, his rumbling floor tom and brushed snares were pretty straightforward, keeping a steady groove but never becoming a distraction.

Gustafson’s ethereal slide guitar and country licks were rather grand in comparison to the other band mates. He’s a fantastic guitarist, and his tone is sublime, but there were times when the guitar overpowered the mix, specifically on the chorus of “Gem.” 

Even though they were subtle, Crawford made some of the most vital contributions. The bass on the record was mixed pretty low, and  the songs benefited from an accentuated low end. Root notes were clarified, and energy was heightened—not the most exciting thing to your typical listener, but important, nonetheless. Crawford switched to an upright bass on “Grasses,” responding to Sanborn’s grains with a deep drone.

There were a couple of instances when the band stepped away, as the filled-out sound wouldn’t have been appropriate for the songs’ vulnerable nature. “Human,” for example, is such a tearjerker that any addition would’ve just subtracted from the emotion.

Perhaps it’s because Sauser-Monnig has spent more time with this material alone, but these solo songs stuck out as the highlights. Without any other instrumentation, the listener has no choice but to focus on her breathtaking voice and introspective, pastoral lyrics. Either way, the fifty-fifty approach was tasteful and dynamic. Whether Sauser-Monnig chooses to revisit the band format or to continue solo, it was an engaging affair by some of the Triangle’s most prominent musicians.