Black Prairie & Special Guest Jon Mooallem w/ Michael Hurley - 7/29

Monday, July 29 2013 6:00pm Doors / 8:00pm Start
Mon Jul 29 2013

Black Prairie & Special Guest Jon Mooallem w/ Michael Hurley - 7/29

at City Winery New York City



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Despite their individual musical pedigrees, the seasoned musicians that make up progressive string band Black Prairie aren’t moonlighting. The ensemble is pulled together from different corners of Portland, Oregon’s remarkably rich music scene, and while the high profile of each musician in the band‚ which includes three-fifths of the Decemberists‚ ensures a certain amount of attention, it’s clear that Black Prairie are in it for purely musical reasons. They’re playing a brand of Americana that defies easy categorization, cross-pollinating a number of different styles while exposing the venerable, forgotten roots of folk and bluegrass.

It all started when Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk wanted to spend more time playing the square-necked Dobro guitar. While on tour with the Decemberists, he and bassist Nate Query hatched the idea to start a primarily instrumental string band during their time off, but it was a couple more years before the Black Prairie lineup solidified. Fellow Decemberist Jenny Conlee brought along her accordion, and prolific Portland musicians Annalisa Tornfelt (the Woolwines, Bearfoot) and Jon Neufeld (Jackstraw, Dolorean) on violin and guitar, respectively also joined the ranks.

The group didn’t come together immediately; it took a while for the busy musicians to assemble in one place, but when they did in the winter of 2007 it was obvious they were moving in the right direction. At that time I needed a musical shot in the arm, Funk says, and I remember driving away from our first practice feeling elated. The group continued to meet at regular intervals as frequently as their schedules would allow, and during an extended period of downtime from the Decemberists in 2008, Black Prairie‚ sound and repertoire really began to gel. Their unamplified, acoustic instrumentation meant that they didn’t need to assemble at grimy practice spaces in industrial sectors of the city, gargling through blown-out PA speakers. Instead, they had the luxury of meeting casually at each other’s Portland homes, leavening their living-room sessions with coffee and treats and conversation.

Once we all play it together, everyone starts throwing ideas in and it takes shape in a very collaborative way, says Query. We always add one completely out-there, bizarre section to every song. And in one out of every three songs, it actually gets retained. We’re trying to really keep the integrity of the acoustic aspect of it‚ of just five people playing instruments‚ so we don’t really experiment with that. But otherwise, it’s no holds barred: With these five instruments, what can we do?

It’s a significant piece of the puzzle that all five members contribute to the songwriting and, a couple of traditional numbers aside, the Black Prairie repertoire contains an unconventional mix of self-penned tunes. All my weird songs have finally found a home in this group, jokes Neufeld. I’ve been waiting to find people crazy enough to play these songs with me!

Aside from uptempo bluegrass and more familiar string-band sounds, the group commands a firm rein over a near comprehensive cross-section of American musical styles. Conlee’s accordion and Tornfelt’s violin provide a gypsy element on certain numbers, locating the shared stylistic ground between old-time music and klezmer, and providing a unique twist on the results. Elsewhere, the band cultivates an almost classical approach to composition, with songs containing multiple movements that ebb and flow in a way that differs greatly from traditional pop or bluegrass structure.

Most of Black Prairie’s songs are instrumental, in keeping with the band’s initial concept. They soon realized, however, it would be a shame not to make use of the rich, untapped vein of Tornfelt’s vocal capabilities. I was surprised when we decided to do it, but I was very excited, she says of her bandmates‚ decision to have her sing a few numbers. I think we all want to make sure the instrumental tunes are really the focus, but getting to sing with this awesome backup band‚ it’s the best of all worlds.

This mix of material got unanimous support from the band’s record label, legendary roots and bluegrass imprint Sugar Hill Records. The label encountered Black Prairie by way of Sarah Jarosz, a mandolin player and singer whose Sugar Hill debut included a Decemberists cover. When they contacted Funk to let him know about Jarosz’s cover, a light bulb clicked. I thought, this is one of my favorite labels of all time, he says. I own hundreds of their records, so I just wrote them and said we’ve got this band; do you want to hear some stuff? They said sure.

Sugar Hill heard the demos and one thing led to another and with freshly inked contract in hand, they had the impetus to hunker down and get to work in the studio. Black Prairie’s debut, Feast of the Hunters’ Moon, is due to be released on Sugar Hill in April 2010; it was laid to tape throughout 2009 at Portland’s legendary Jackpot! Recording Studio with producer Tucker Martine (Bill Frisell, the Decemberists, Laura Veirs) manning the boards.

Tornfelt in particular was an enormous fan of Martine’s work on albums by Portland singer/songwriter Laura Veirs and leapt at the chance to work with Martine. I’ve been listening to Laura Veirs’ records for the past two years straight, so I was like, I get to sing with Tucker Martine producing? It’s like my dream.

With a broad stylistic palette at their disposal and a pronounced emphasis on musicianship, Black Prairie is incredibly well poised for a band that, for most listeners, is just starting out. And their accumulated experience in numerous other bands ensures they aren’t likely to quickly flame out in a blaze of ego or exhaustion. The band jokes about being in their honeymoon phase right now. Considering how long it took us to get together, maybe we’ll get that seven-year itch real early laughs Query. But seriously, this group really had no aspirations other than musical ones. It’s just been for fun, and for our own sake.


Jon is a Contributing Writer to the New York Times Magazine since 2006 and is also a writer-at-large for Pop-Up Magazine, the live magazine, and has performed on stage, in San Francisco.

He has contributed to This American Life, Harper's, Wired, The New Yorker, Radiolab and many other magazines and radio shows.

Before they perform their own set, Black Prairie are doing a special 25-minute collaborative set with Jon that has the band playing while Jon reads from his critically-acclaimed book "Wild Ones".

Mooallem has watched his little daughter’s world overflow with animals—butterfly pajamas, plush snow owls—while the actual world she’s inheriting slides into a great storm of extinction. Half of all species could disappear by the end of the century, and scientists now concede that most of America’s endangered animals will survive only if conservationists keep rigging the world around them in their favor. So Mooallem ventures into the field, often taking his daughter with him, to move beyond childlike fascination and make those creatures feel more real.

Wild Ones is a tour through our environmental moment and the eccentric cultural history of people and wild animals in America that inflects it—from Thomas Jefferson’s celebrations of early abundance to the turn-of-the-last-century origins of the teddy bear to the whale-loving hippies of the 1970s. In America, Wild Ones discovers, wildlife has always inhabited the terrain of our imagination as much as the actual land.

The journey is framed by the stories of three modern-day endangered species: the polar bear, victimized by climate change and ogled by tourists outside a remote, northern town; the little-known Lange’s metalmark butterfly, foundering on a shred of industrialized land near San Francisco; and the whooping crane as it’s led on a months-long migration by costumed men in ultralight airplanes. The wilderness that Wild Ones navigates is a scrappy, disorderly place where amateur conservationists do grueling, sometimes preposterous looking work; where a marketer maneuvers to control the polar bear’s image; and Martha Stewart turns up to film those beasts for her show on the Hallmark Channel. Our most comforting ideas about nature unravel. In their place, Mooallem forges a new and affirming vision of the human animal and the wild ones as kindred creatures on an imperfect planet.

With propulsive curiosity and searing wit, and without the easy moralizing and nature worship of environmental journalism’s older guard, Wild Ones merges reportage, science, and history into a humane and endearing meditation on what it means to live in, and bring a life into, a broken world.


Michael Hurley is a singer/songwriter as well as a cartoonist & a watercolor artist of note. Living now in Brownsmead, Oregon; he grew to be of age in Bucks County Pennsylvania. He has lived in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts, Ohio, and California while working at a variety of jobs until his music and art became a means of support for him. He now performs his own brand of blues & country music all over the USA and europe and in Canada. He plays a Gibson L-50 Special electric-acoustic jazz guitar as well as banjo, fiddle, piano, pump organ and mock trumpet.

The late Charles Cuminale of Colorblind James, wrote, "Hurley is guided by an instinct he trusts, even reveres. The result is a body of work that contains an unparalleled purity of vision." - City Paper, Rochester, NY

Robert Christgau, so called the dean of American rock critics, wrote about him many times. His old timey feel is devoid of camp or nostalgia. He's still writing about the afterlife better than anyone else." - The Village Voice, NYC

"Eyes Eyes and Uncle Bob's Corner are classics, achieving an oblique synthesis of hilarity, wistfulness, and stark fear not attempted before or since in Hurley's work (or anybody else's). To really understand featuring the werewolf, Marilyn Monroe, and Smokey the Bear---and their eyes---could be so damned poignant; one would obiviously have to hear the song." - Charles Olver / Catharsis, Norfolk, VA

"Everytime Michael Hurley saunters into town, the quality of life jumps up a notch or two. He strums and sings Shackles & Chains and you are reminded of what's missing from the Newport Folk Festival. He scratches out Hog of the Forsaken on his fiddle and you know why he's not invited onto the bill {ed.note: but he is now}. Then he sings Hungry Hash House and you realize that curious social indictments from the 30's still resonance today. By the time he sings O My Stars you understand why the angels are floating behind him." - Jim Macnie / The New Paper, Providence, RI

"The guy who can write a mantra on home truths, and a sublime hymn to a sacrificial pig-god has a streak of earthy mysticism in him that cannot be denied." - Mike Milo / Boston Phoenix



Shovels and Rope, The Decemberists, Punch Brothers