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Monday, Feb. 10, 2020

Michael Futreal and Twang Darkly

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Music with an avant-garde twist

Near the end of their set in the cozy basement black box theater at Central ArtStation, Michael Futreal and his band, Twang Darkly, broke into a cover of “Born in the USA.” The audience immediately started clapping along to the trio’s restrained version of Bruce Springsteen’s misunderstood anthem.

It was a startling moment, as Futreal is not known as a vocalist. Twang Darkly is an instrumental group that performs his quirky Americana tunes, Futreal wielding vintage and homemade string instruments with origins in the Appalachian region where he grew up. But the song fits right in.

Throughout the 75-minute show, he and his bandmates – guitarist Joel Boultinghouse and drummer Lane Bayliss – accessed some of the same folk, country and blues roots as rockers like Springsteen, Neil Young and Bob Dylan but with an avant-garde twist.

The thread sewing it all together was the notion that the most interesting music derives from non-professionals, usually in rural settings, who create it as a form of personal self-expression that some have called primitive. Twang Darkly has turned that into something sophisticated.

The group also took forays into Middle Eastern modalities as Futreal bent and stretched notes on his various dulcimers and gourd guitars until they resembled the cries of Indian or flamenco singers. The music remained melodious even as it swirled and circled back on itself or became as driving as a rock band’s.

With his relaxed stage presence, Futreal proved to be a genial host at the Jan. 23 performance, introducing many of the songs with anecdotes. They were played in front of a screen showing nature scenes, educational videos and archaic-looking animation.

As if telling a story, the show had an arc that built intensity over the course of 15 numbers, each player often starting off in their own direction, only to coalesce into a cohesive whole.

Sponsored by the Shreveport Regional Arts Council, the performance was the outcome of an annual competition called Critical Mass held last March. Futreal won with “Hiddenite,” a song named for a gemstone discovered in North Carolina in the late 19th century.

The second tune on the bill, “Hiddenite” was played on an electric gourd resting on his lap like a steel guitar and featured his twangy, note-bending approach against the drone of his bandmates. This is a country melody tune Neil Young might wish he’d written. Like many of his and Futreal’s compositions, it had a sorrowful tone.

Twang Darkly then alternated between upbeat tunes like “Breakthrough” and the laid-back style of “Martian Archeology,” which Futreal introduced as “an exploration of the tension between imagination and knowledge.” It was more like the band sounds in its recordings: Avant-garde experimenters paying tribute to new music pioneers like John Cage.

Futreal built on the song that won him the commission at Critical Mass 7 with “Hiddenite II,” one of the show’s best moments. Mysteriously inward-looking, it came at the audience sideways.

“Born in the USA,” and its refrain of “ain’t got nowhere to go,” was another highlight as his various influences merged into something original.

With this back and forth between introspective meditations and more buoyant excursions, Futreal and Twang Darkly beautifully captured the swing between melancholy and optimism in the divided American soul.

Manny Mendoza is the former pop music critic of The Dallas Morning News. Today he’s a freelance writer and critic specializing in the performing arts.


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