The Allen Room at Lincoln Center is designed so exquisitely you can hear palms peeling off programs in the cottony silence before Shara Worden’s show. The giant tilting window behind the stage looms like an extravagant abstract expressionist painting. Clusters of yellow lights dot the horizon. Wood paneling throughout the sparse, black-boxy amphitheater makes it feel like you’re sitting in a Swedish bathhouse for audio nerds. Was that an individual footstep I heard? The room even smells like sound. For a lesser talent, this set up would be intimidating. But for Shara Worden, whose vocals articulate a dynamic range of textures and sounds, it’s fitting, if perhaps just a tad stuffy.
Some might know her as the frontwoman of My Brightest Diamond. Some might recognize her from her playing with Sufjan Stevens or The Decemberists. But Worden is a singular talent. And tonight, she leads yMusic – a scruffy-ish band of young musicians of illustrious artistry but little individual celebrity. Their contributions are well-known—these guys and girls have toured and recorded with the likes of the Arcade Fire, Spoon, Vampire Weekend, Jonsi and Grizzly Bear. Some graduated from Juilliard, others have played Carnegie Hall. You hear them on your favorite albums and see them at the most anticipated shows, only you don’t know who they are. Maybe you never thought to ask. After all, don’t they just hit a button for violins these days?
In an age where the most popular music is auto-tuned, looped and put through a meat-grinder of processing just in order to pass as listenable, tonight serves as a triumphant reminder that not all young musicians are lazy stylists who know how to punch in their good parts.
The show was divided into two halves, the first of which featured completely new material with yMusic. Worden played nine of these new chamber-art songs—each of them captivating. Worden’s voice forces you to pay attention to every syllable, highlighting the softest plosive or anticipated consonant. Makes sense: Worden’s got the quirk of having grown up the granddaughter of a traveling evangelist, but she was also trained as a classical vocal performer in college. Her career has been the challenge of fusing the classical with the contemporary, the operatic with the punk. Perhaps this is why Worden’s comfortable trading instruments and influences throughout her set. For the new tune “Escape Routes,” she even whips out an autoharp.
“The autoharp seems to be the instrument du jour,” Worden tells the audience, cradling the instrument the size and shape of a washboard to her chest. “So I checked out Craigslist.” (Craigslist, incidentally, is also where she found yMusic violinist and guitarist Rob Moose). Worden might as well have been strumming her own heartstrings. She sings unapologetically about love, creativity and struggle with the two. Worden gets away with these topics because she’s learned how to avoid cliché – she’s got a poet’s lyricism and an evangelist’s spiritual verve. Most of all, she’s got the sincerity and skill to rock both.
More instruments are revealed—finger bells, a ¾ size guitar—as Worden and yMusic play material that sits somewhere between classical, gospel and grunge. The politely sterile applause of the Allen Room doesn’t seem to do it justice. At one point, the members of yMusic put down string instruments, pick up harmonicas and Worden sings a schmaltzy lullaby to the moon behind her. It diffuses the formality of the room. Worden explained that because she spent three months preparing for this night, “I thought we’d have to sing a song about the window. Let’s hit it.”
By the final song Worden plays with the strings, it’s clear why she had been buttering up the Allen Room with funny accents and self-deprecating jokes. It’s so she can get away with the serious stuff. She wrote “I Have Never Loved Someone” for her six-month-old baby boy, Constantine. “When I grow to be a poppy in the graveyard, I will send you my love on the breeze,” she sings. “You’re okay” is the repeating chorus. It’s difficult to gauge the reaction of the audience in the darkness.
For the second half of the show yMusic exits the stage, leaving just My Brightest Diamond (Worden, drummer Ted Poor and bassist Nathan Lithgow). Worden picks up her signature Gibson, glossy strings flying off the neck, and it’s time to rock out. The first song they play is Golden Star” off of Worden’s first album, Bring Me the Workhorse. On “To Pluto’s Moon” Worden steps away from the mic and teases out something gritty and grand with Poor and Lithgow. They reach a crescendo, and Worden unleashes an expressive howl. Again, it’s the intersection of punk and opera.
At the end of the set, Worden receives a standing ovation and is invited back onstage for an encore. She returns, uke in hand, to play “Gentlest Gentleman.” This one’s a singalong, and by now the audience gladly, gratefully obliges.