About 30 minutes in his new concert film Blackalachia, Moses Sumney soars into the air. He sings “Plastic” while floating a few meters above the ground, a solitary figure weightless against the sky at dusk. Then, in the middle of the song, the strings holding it back suddenly become visible, as if we were capturing behind-the-scenes footage from a film set. “My wings are made,” Sumney hums, “and so am I.”
It’s a dizzying effect, exposing the structures that make up our self-presentation – the things we show, the things we don’t show. In a way, the scene feels like a natural continuation of themes that Sumney explored in her most recent album, 2020’s. grae: Masculinity, gender, race, the multiplicity of identities that make up who we are and how we are perceived by the world.
Sumney has long struggled with image and perception. Overwhelmed and distracted by what he described as a “personality cult“Attached to being an interpreter, he left Los Angeles in 2017 and took refuge in Asheville, North Carolina. He was drawn to the city’s natural environment – the forest, the sky, the birds – and Live from Blackalachia was born from this new house. For two days in the summer of 2020, Sumney and a group of seven musicians recorded 13 songs taken from grae and 2017 Aromanticism live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, one hour from Asheville. Transported in Blackalachia and far from the societal context, music meets us with open arms.
As sprawling as their surroundings, the live performances are all longer than their studio counterparts. The changes are sometimes tiny: a note is held longer, a melody delivered more slowly, an instrumental interlude stretched and woven like a climbing vine. “Bless Me,” the longest track on the album, spans eight minutes as Sumney enjoys freestyle on opera vocal tracks, playing with restraint and structure. On “Doomed”, the addition of the saxophones of Serena Wiley and Brian Horton and the trombone of Derrick Johnson adds a great sensibility to cosmic jazz. In the accompanying film, Sumney is lying on the grass, twisting and turning, drawn to the music’s sinuous, organic movement. At their most forgiving, live takes make the studio versions feel domesticated by comparison.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Live from Blackalachia this is how undiluted every performer is, even at such a length. Without his iconic vocal harmonies, Sumney sounds more lonely than ever. “In Bloom (in the woods)”, the most radical reimagination, reduces the symphonic production of the original to basic string elements: a cello vibrates under Sumney’s voice; a single plucked violin evolves into frantic bows. The first third of a dynamic new version of “Me in 20 Years” removes many production frills and vocal layers in favor of a singular and slow sensuality. When the song opens to the chorus, it’s like sunbeams on your eyes.
But Sumney is also joined by a new company: the crickets chirp in the background; the wind hums in the trees. Set atop living, breathing soil, the maximalist pizzazz of a song like “Virility” is imbued with earthy energy. His wild-hearted outro rises and falls in a thunderous roar, as if the ground is shaking. Live from Blackalachia only has one newly written track, an interlude titled “Space Nation Race Place”. When playing in the film, Sumney lies naked in a tub in the middle of a field, her body adorned with garlands of orange blossoms. As the camera zooms out, it gets smaller and smaller, eventually replaced by a shot of passing trees, as if they are one. “I needed a space to express my own loneliness, not at the level of state, nation, race or place,” he recites. In Blackalachia, its isolation becomes a means of freedom and connection – an ocean sensation so abundant and lush that it invites us. At the end of the interlude, the camera settles among the shrubs, Wiley emerges from the woods with his saxophone, and the first notes of The “Color” fly away like a greeting.
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