I think we can all agree that the free concerts Danny Grace and his cohorts at Hendrix College have been putting together over the years at Staples Auditorium have been nothing less than heavenly manna. From Van Dyke Parks to Pere Ubu, these shows have been high-water marks in Arkansas entertainment.
Even amongst such memorable competition, “The Disfarmer Project,” the ambitious stage show put together by renowned guitarist Bill Frisell and friends, exceeded those previous concerts in concept and scope. Friday evening's show was a celebration of the astonishing early-20th-century photographs of Arkansas photographer Disfarmer, with musical accompaniment by Frisell, Jenny Scheinman on violin and Greg Leisz on various guitars and pedal steel.
Seeking to better understand Disfarmer and his milieu, Frisell drove to the photographer's stomping grounds, Heber Springs, and took in a good deal of rural and back road Americana on the way. This is the kind of commitment Bill Frisell brings to his projects. So it was with much anticipation that my friends and I took our seats before the show.
As the lights dimmed, time-worn and eerily familiar images taken by the mysterious Disfarmer emerged and faded, as if in a developing bath, on two large panels on either side of the performers. Weathered faces reflected a shared American heritage of strife and struggle. A monochromatic parade of men, women and children accompanied the quietly swelling string music coming from center stage. Like a truckload of ECM records, Frisell and company proceeded to perform a moving, if mannered, hour and three-quarters of music. Anyone familiar with ECM's catalogue of chamber jazz and genre fusions will have found these delicate musical settings familiar. Out of a folky, countrified ambience, lightly swinging and sliding like dustbowl tumbleweeds, the trio touched down on a couple of Hank Williams tunes, an Elvis chestnut and, as a Frisell solo piece, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was only with “Somewhere” that I felt preciousness creep into the proceedings. The sentimental and overworked number made me cringe, much as I tried to deny it. Happily, things picked back up quickly afterward and toes began tapping again.
Greg Leisz' pedal steel and lap steel playing was a highlight throughout the show, and Jenny Scheinman sawed off some solid hoedown figures, as well as some serious neoclassical maneuvers. Frisell conducted subtly, steering this mostly scripted evening from arty abstraction to freewheeling fun. I would have liked to hear Frisell cut loose with some fire of his own, but he mainly stayed to the sidelines, content to add tone and color. His guitar seldom left the realm of processed sound, with effects pedals and knob twiddling to the fore. This demure stance was no doubt a sacrifice to the overall context.
Hats off to Hendrix College for another unique musical experience. Credit for a technically flawless program goes to many, not the least to Little Rock's Peter Miller, owner of the Disfarmer photographs.— Charlie James