With nothing but a fiddle and a looper pedal, Gaelynn Lea played songs that at times sounded Lord of the Rings-esque, apocalyptic, and earthy in an often hilarious set at The Lilypad.

10/25/19 – The Lilypad

Every time Gaelynn Lea plays her song “Let It Go” at an elementary school, kids cry in disappointment that it’s not the song from Frozen. Lea energized the crowd at The Lilypad with anecdotes such as that one during her set. When all of the breaks between songs are just as good as the music, it’s going to be a good show. Lea graciously informed the crowd of the wheelchair-accessible bathroom in the back of the venue—only so that she could joke that it would be much better than watching someone go in the bathroom right next to the stage in the tiny, 80-person-capacity venue. What’s more iconic than making a crowd feel awkward with toilet jokes before playing an ancient folk tune that could have appeared on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack?

The Lord of the Rings-esque tune Lea played was “Swallowtail Jig,” the inspiration for Lea’s incorporation of her looper pedal. Lea’s looper pedal, a gift from Alan Sparhawk, her collaborator and a member of the legendary Duluth-based band Low, began as Lea’s bane at the start of her career—before turning into one of the three necessary instruments she uses during live shows (the other two being her voice and violin.) “Swallowtail Jig” presented the diverse possibilities for melody and harmony that the looper pedal could then exploit. Layering mysterious bass notes under melodies that appeared to derive from foreign scales generated a sound that was both familiar yet distant, complex yet accessible. It sounded earthy—in a good way. “Swallowtail Jig” was one of only two traditional folk songs that Lea played during her set. The other was “Metsakukkia,” an old Finnish song that Lea realized when looped, could sound like the apocalypse. Meshing a rapid succession of sharp strokes with haunting bass notes mimicking a buzzing swarm of bees, Lea produced the kind of music one might hear in a Robert Eggers film.

While Lea opened with more traditional folk songs, the majority of her set was filled with original music. Despite only having started writing around the time that she formed the band The Murder of Crows with Sparhawk in 2012, many of Lea’s lyrics contain the wisdom and flow of a master. On “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” which she called a “return to sadness,” Lea sang “Don’t tell me we’ve got time/ The subtle thief of life/ It slips away when we pay no mind.”  The song, which began her fabled Tiny Desk show, encompasses the complexity of Lea’s lyrical approach to her music, which often combines poetic imagery with bittersweet undertones. The crowd sat silent, understanding how special it was to watch her perform her most famous song at such a small venue.

Lea’s live performance could be best summarized as joyful. “The Long Way Around,”  Lea’s most recent single, focuses on relationships that are difficult but are worth the effort. As she plucked her violin strings towards the beginning of the song, it became clear that Lea’s main impetus for everything that she did was joy. It was as if the warm plucking of the chords underscored everything she had gone through—learning to play the violin while living with osteogenesis imperfecta, unexpectedly becoming a solo musician, meeting her husband and having him become her tour manager—to get to this point. This is further emphasized in “Birdsong,” where Lea encouraged the audience to sing along: “Bird, why do you sing?/ Fate has clipped your wings.” Through her presence, Lea provided hope as an answer to the song’s very question.

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