While there have been cellos and violins (and probably even the odd viola or two) on The Grey Eagle stage before, it’s possible that they’ve never been played with quite the breathless splendor of Andrew Joslyn’s Passenger String Quartet. That group, led by violinist and arranger Joslyn, with cellist Rebecca Chung Filice, Seth May-Patterson on viola and violinist Alina To, has backed the likes of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Suzanne Vega and DJ Spooky. On Saturday, they played with singer-songwriter David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion and Headphones) on a set of songs Bazan said will be retired after this tour.
The thing about strings is that they elevate everything, underscoring each verse with emotive elegance and promoting decent song craft to resonant poetic genius. Then again, Bazan’s songs are good to begin with — pithy, brutal, funny and human. “Deep green hills whose shoulders fade into thick grey / Tall wet grass whose flesh makes fools of grazing sheep / Whose fleecing makes a fool of me / Who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble for every / stupid struggle I don’t know,” he sings on “The Fleecing.” That song’s moody opening morphed into a soft pastoral with layered textures from bowing, plucking and Bazan’s own guitar strumming.
It was Joslyn who initiated the project, arranging four of Bazan’s songs. The end result, lush and at once weighty and transcendent, comes off like a true commitment to art — seeing a project through to its final result. Because of course it would be enough for the Passenger String Quartet to be a chamber music group and for Bazan to be a singer-songwriter without ever cross-pollinating. And yet, to the boon of luckily listeners, they took that next step.
On “Wolves at the Door,” Bazan played a small synthesizer, adding percussive samples and grounding the high, eerie keen of the violin. “How I Remember” was all drama and sentiment; while “I Do” layered warm tones.
Every few songs, while turning his guitar, the house lights went up and Bazan took questions from the crowd. Like his songs, he’s open, genial, irreverent and humorous. When asked if playing with Passenger String Quartet changed how he wrote songs, Bazan replied, “I don’t know how I write songs. If you scrub hard enough, the dish comes clean. But I don’t understand the mechanics of it.” And to a question about how he cares for his vocal chords he answered, “The only thing I’ve found is to get eight hours of sleep a night and drink a gallon of water every day, but I haven’t been doing the water part.”
In fact, Bazan’s voice is far from that of the pitch-perfect, smooth-edged soloists who usually perform with classical ensembles. A wooly growl in his lower register and breaking on the high notes, Bazan’s vocal was perfect in its imperfection. The rough edge of his voice against the vibrant and sweeping canvas of the strings felt like a revelation — an exercise in textural and emotional juxtaposition.
And ultimately, that was the culmination the collaboration: fresh takes on both chamber music and songwriter fair. Sometimes the strings reflected the temperamental pitch of the songs, other times they served as sonic architecture on which Bazan could build and explore with melody and poetry. From start to finish, it was an adventure worth taking.