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Restoration Festival

by Josh Potter on September 13, 2012

ST. JOSEPH’S CHURCH, SEPT. 7-9

“This is like the last episode of Lost,” said mandolinist Matthew Loiacono, looking out at the crowd that had gathered in St. Joseph’s Church for the much-anticipated Kamikaze Hearts reunion Friday night at the third annual Restoration Festival. “That’s right, you’re all dead,” quipped singer Troy Pohl, “and this is heaven . . . or something. Were you expecting the Beatles?”

Mourning dove: Sharon Van Etten at Rest Fest. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Powering through an extra-long set of tunes, spanning fan favorites, unperformed rarities and a Mountain Goats cover for good measure, the Hearts hardly seemed to be shaking five years of dust off of a career that, at its height, reigned supreme in the Capital Region. There was a touch of nostalgia to Pohl’s song dedications to friends and family in the audience, as well as a special appearance by cellist Karen Codd, who played with the band from 2000-2002, but the band’s arrangements and vocal harmonies felt as present and natural as did their between-song banter, covering such subjects as drummer Gaven Richard’s jogging exploits and the bad Chinese food Loiacono was battling with ginger ale. While focus is often given to Pohl and Richard’s infectiously literate songsmithing, the natural reverb of St. Joe’s allowed Loiacono and unsung guitar hero Bob Buckley an ample palette for traded riffing. Following strong sets by Better Pills and Common Prayer, the Hearts had the formidable crowd singing along to familiar anthems to kick off the most ambitious Rest Fest to date.

Due to solid booking by the organizing B3nson Collective, each of Saturday’s acts filled St. Joe’s filigreed walls and ornate domes with a mix of crimson and clover. Barons in the Attic opened the day with a whisper-growl set culled from their latest album, Turn It Off and Take Out the Battery. MC’s Aaron Smith, of the Scientific Maps, and Laura Glazer, host of WEXT’s Hello Pretty City, directed traffic between the two stages and proved perfect comic foils for one another. The second stage, which previously hosted unamplified sets in the church’s vestibule, was equipped with a full sound system and featured sets from Careers and GoldTooth.

Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned dug deep into their catalog, causing the crowd and members of the B3nson family to get a little misty, before Mount Eerie brought a unique blend of doomed post-rock and subdued folk. On “Clear Moon,” they oscillated between two tense chords amid cymbal rushes and Twin Peaks synths. St. Joe’s could have been the perfect space for singer Phil Elvrum’s vision, but when you are working with few chords, you really have to sell them, and Elvrum’s nonchalant guitar work and distant stare were incongruous with the gravitas of the music. There is more at stake within the red curtains of the Black Lodge than the band emoted.

Closing out the night, road warrior Sharon Van Etten brought the faithful to their knees with her mourning-dove soprano. On “I’m Wrong,” multi-instrumentalist Doug Keith laid down hard-edged drones with bowed electric guitar, while Van Etten aimed for the rafters and sang “Tell me I’m wrong/To make it feel right again,” adding another heartfelt emotional peak to the day’s festivities.

“Sunday Morning” by the Velvet Underground played over the PA the next day and set the tone for Swamp Baby’s hushed opening set. In lieu of playing material from their recent album, For Baby’s Babies, the band debuted all new material. Their patient brand of cracked folk christened the final day with subtle, dynamic crescendos and deep echoes. The Ramblin’ Jug Stompers reminded festivalgoers of the tradition from which all this guitar strumming emerged, before Brian Dewan arrived, dressed like a dishevelled mailman, to show where the tradition might go if Dr. Demento had greater sway over things. Performing touchingly earnest songs about cadavers, a Bach hymn and a distorted AC/DC-esque lament about getting “boned,” Dewan also started a peculiar theme for the day with his expert use of the autoharp. With Willy Mason’s partner strumming one later and the Parlor’s Donna Baird breaking out the digital equivalent—the Omnichord—the autoharp may well be indie rock’s new ukulele.

Deadpan gentlemen Giles Bennet and the Petrified Woods broke things up before Brooklyn’s the Loom segued into Sunday evening’s headliners. The final B3nson band of the weekend, the Parlor performed a fleet of tunes from their new record, an older Dunbar tune, and a new mini-epic that might herald a longer-form approach to the band’s songwriting. By the time Willy Mason took the stage, finger-picking his electric guitar in a ’70s-cut suit, it was starting to feel like a Sunday evening and Mason’s deep, easy voice arrived like a father’s lullaby to send the weekend off.