You never quite know what to expect from Andrew Broder’s January residency gigs at the Turf Club, but it’s safe to say few expected the Upper Midwest’s biggest indie-rocker to appear alongside a Sioux Indian drum group and a rapper with a modern-dance troupe.
Wisconsin’s star strummer Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame sneaked into the St. Paul club Wednesday night under the guise of Broder’s weekly mash-up show to tout his latest in myriad recording projects, Big Red Machine. The new band is a collaboration with the National’s Aaron Dessner that also features St. Paul hero JT Bates on drums.
It was only the group’s third or fourth official gig, counting an appearance at last summer’s Eaux Claires festival, which Vernon and Dessner curate together. They probably could have filled First Ave or even the Palace Theatre, but instead they stuck with Broder’s Turf Club series, where all the ticket money goes to a chosen charity (American Indian Women’s Resource Center in this case) and the audience seems ready to expect the unexpected.
Wednesday’s quickly sold-out showcase offered a generous 70-minute helping of material from Big Red Machine’s eponymous 2018 debut album.
Vernon & Co. were sandwiched on the bill between opening sets by the East Coast rapper formerly known as Spank Rock, now Naeem, and the Shakopee-based Sioux drum-circle quintet Iron Boy; followed by DJ sets by Klituation party ringleader Keezy and the duo known as Two Drummers, aka Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu of Poliça. What a mix.
Wednesday night’s curator, Broder (of Fog and Cloak Ox musical notoriety), did not even perform for the opening week of his so-called Residency at the End of the World, which continues through Jan. 30 with many more surprising guests. However, he did introduce interview recordings he and local journalist Steve Marsh made with residents of the homeless encampment near Little Earth housing project before the enclave was finally resettled last month.
It was an unusually somber start but fit the series’ desperate end-days theme — “a concept that’s been on everybody’s mind more than usual over the past year or two,” Broder explained. Iron Boy complemented the stark presentation with a short, vocal-and-drum performance that sounded like a funeral chant.
Naeem followed with what was also an atypically subdued set compared with his wild Spank Rock displays. The Philadelphia-based digital shape-shifter sat down with his DJ behind him through much of his set, showing off a more sensual, Frank Ocean-style romantic R&B sound than the sexually madcap party-rap he’s known for, though things sharply picked up musically and physically as a quintet of dancers joined him for the last two songs.
Unexpectedly, the Big Red Machine set turned out to be the most straight-ahead, conventional and electrifying time slot of the night, though it certainly had its moments of experimentation, too.
Scaled back from prior shows to a trio — “our bass player quit before the show,” Dessner quipped to the crowd — the studio-project-turned-band produced a surprisingly big, rich sound anchored by two Telecaster guitars, some light and airy synth/drums electronic accompaniment and Vernon’s effects-ridden, falsetto-heavy vocals.
In concert, Big Red Machine turned out to be more Bon Iver-like than all of Vernon’s other side projects. The songs featured a similar, blanket-intimate vibe and some of the same pained personal drama of Vernon’s main vehicle, especially the “green ones” — second song “Deep Green” and the slow-grooving “Forest Green.” The latter sounded like a regular ol’ breakup lament (“I was gonna give us more time / I ain’t lying”).
But BRM’s live set also showed off an influence not heard in Vernon’s main vehicle: the Grateful Dead. He and Dessner (an avowed Deadhead) delivered some playful, light guitar interludes together in the strong new tune “Easy to Sabotage.” And with great assistance by Bates’ freewheeling but steady percussion, they had a way of floating in and out of the songs’ main melodic lines without ever sounding overtly jammy.
The highlight of their set came four songs in, when Iron Boy member Joe Rainey came on stage and added mournful, wordless yet spine-tingling vocals to “Lyla,” giving it a rise-above triumphal tone that Vernon reflected on afterward.
“It’s times like that that puts things in perspective, and makes me think 2019 is going to be better,” he said, sounding too excited about his new band’s beginnings to worry about the world’s end.
Andrew Broder’s Residency at the End of the World
Next Wed.: Marijuana Death Squads, Gully Boys, Sophia Eris.
Jan. 23: Hymie’s Basement, Yoni Wolf, Dave King & Andrew Broder, Lady Midnight.
Jan. 30: The Cloak Ox, Serengeti, Angel Davanport.
Where: Turf Club, 1601 W. University Av., St. Paul.
Tickets: $10-$12, eTix.com.