Sundance means music, too: Hitting the high notes with Donovan & Sugar Man'smain man
PARK CITY, Utah — I love the middle part of the 11-day Sundance Film Festival. Most of the big name stars and publicity seekers leave after opening weekend and along with them go the traffic jams, paparazzi, and gift suites. There is a quieter buzz to the town as focus shifts more to the independent film maker.
One of the changes Sundance has made this year is to add more music to encourage more collaboration between musicians and filmmakers. With that in mind and fresh from seeing two musical documentaries, Searching for Sugar Manand Under African Skies, which tells the story of Paul’s Simon’s award winning album, Graceland, I decided to investigate the music scene.
Sundance’s official musical venue is The ASCAP (American Society of Composer, Authors and Publishers) Music Cafe on Main Street which features artists during the festival. Located in a borrowed art gallery, the concerts are free for credentialed festival goers. The scene is an intimate coffee house holding no more than 100 people with footstools scattered about.
Those who saw the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, have been searching for Rodriguez ever since. There is no one more sought after at Sundance.
On the evening I visited, Ben Taylor (son of James) had just played and the audience was treated to a Film Music Remix concert by Ronit Kirchman (2011-12 Sundance Institute/Time Warner fellow). Kirchman, along with two live computers and a string quartet, remixed her original score for the film The Skin I’m In, which was originally recorded with an orchestra. What a unique musical experience. Other artists performing at the ASCAP Café this week include James McCartney, Josh Kelley, Jenny O, and Natasha Bedingfeld.
Right up the street from the ASCAP Café is the BMI Snowball — the hottest ticket in town showcasing current and future muscians. The tickets are free but the demand is always greater than the supply since it holds only 200. Held in the HP-sponsored Sundance Center (it's the Kimball Art Center the rest of the year), guests sip on cocktails at small tables scattered around the edge of the room, footstools in the front and chairs elsewhere. It's an intimate setting, with artists sitting on couches to the side as others perform.
On Wednesday night, Zach Heckendorf, a 19-year-old guitar protégée and singer, was first up. He sounds similar to Dave Matthews or John Mayer and was recently signed to a record label. Heckendorf was followed by Dawes, two brothers (and two others not present) who sing folk music reminiscent of Crosby Stills Nash & Young. They were greeted with enthusiastic applause by those who had seen their recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel and are familiar with their new album Nothing Is Wrong. The middle-agers in the audience remarked that one of the brothers was a dead ringer for Art Garfunkel while the younger crowd looked at us blankly.
The third performer was Rodriguez. For those not into the minutiae of 1970’s music, the name will not ring a bell unless you remember the album, Cold Fact. Those who saw the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, have been searching for Rodriguez ever since. There is no one more sought after at Sundance. If the film does as well as expected, Rodriguez will have his moment in the sun although I’m not sure he really cares.
Donovan concluded with a boisterous enthusiastic sing along of “Mellow Yellow,” for which he received an extended standing ovation, I heard a group of men in their twenties boasting about how many of his albums they had collected.
At 70ish years old, he walked gingerly to the stage to a standing ovation. He sings sometimes with his head hanging down and his back to the audience. Easy to see why he didn’t catch on in the '70s despite being a great song writer. Knowing his back story now, his authenticity only endeared him to the audience more.
The final act was Donovan, current Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and creator of hit songs, “Mellow Yellow,” “Season of the Witch,” and “Sunshine Superman." A close friend of the Beatles, the singer also has close ties with art and films. During his set, he pointed out that many recording artists such as John Lennon and Peter Gabriel studied art and that songs are essentially three-minute movies in the mind of a songwriter.
Surprisingly, the entire audience, including those in their twenties, knew every word to his songs. Sundance fellow, the mega talented violinist Lili Haydn, accompanied Donovan on several songs which gave them a more modern take. Donovan concluded with a boisterous enthusiastic sing along of “Mellow Yellow,” for which he received an extended standing ovation.
I heard a group of men in their twenties boasting about how many of his albums they had collected. It was a magical evening showing how music, like films can tell stories and be uplifting and unifying.