Willy Porter & Carpe Diem
Live at BoMA
October 8th, 2010
It's not exactly new for an artist to resurrect their past catalogue with an injection of strings. All too often, however, the violins and cellos are kept at a deliberate distance from the meat of the song like a sad piece of garnish that adds little to the meal, but puts some extra color on the plate. I was pleased to see that when Willy Porter and the string ensemble Carpe Diem teamed up to play some of Porter's songs live in Columbus, OH, the end result was a new perspective rather than a change of packaging.
Carpe Diem and Willy Porter intended to share the stage at BoMA as a one-night-only event. Supposedly, they weren't even planning on releasing an album, but the audience that night heard a one-night-only show that sounded like it was a lifetime in the making. Even if there isn't another evening of collaboration, this collection is an excellent souvenir of something special.
At the very top of "Moonbeam", Carpe Diem create a classical foundation upon which Porter's guitar is free to make itself at home. The strings spend the whole song in the forefront from the introductory cello scream to the violin solo and beyond. At no point is the introduction of a new musical element pushed to the background or reduced to gimmick. Instead, Porter and Carpe Diem work together to make ample room for varieties of expression inside the existing structures of Willy Porter's song.
Willy Porter is no stranger to sharing a stage. For the better part of the past 20 years he’s toured relentlessly both as a solo artist and with the company of a full band. Regardless how full the stage is, Willy Porter has never struggled to fully populate a song, or to provide breathing room to a single line. With Carpe Diem, he strikes a very impressive balance that re-imagines songs like "Breathe" so seamlessly that it sounds like this must be the way it always was. These are all Porter's songs, but this particular collection of artists takes ownership of them.
However, the proceedings lack a bit of character. Porter has a gift for stage banter that few musicians can match. In concert, when he talks to the audience between songs, it's often just as entertaining as the songs themselves.
Live at BoMA, just like Porter's previous live album
High Wire Live, offers no words between songs. The audience applause is the only non-musical sounds. The absence of Porter's stories, anecdotes, and jokes create a sense of gravity that weighs on the entire album. Porter's wry humor isn't just missing from between tunes, but the songs selected for this evening are all from the headier side of his roster. Gone are songs like "Jesus On The Grille" or the more youthful political satire of "How To Rob A Bank". Instead we are presented with the likes of the pained and desperate "Big Yellow Pine", the inspiration-seeking "Paper Airplane", and the hard-luck tale of "Hard Place."
They bid the audience farewell with the beautiful and uplifting "Watercolor." The warmth of Carpe Diem sets the scene and the multiple instruments paint the song's "watercolor sunrise" in bold broad strokes. These were all great songs before receiving the Carpe Diem treatment. Afterward, they're still great songs - not necessarily better songs and certainly not worse songs. They're simply different. There's just something satisfying and refreshing about that.