Sunday, April 24, 2011

Concert review: The Fantastic Merlins at the Black Dog

When: Friday, April 22, 2011 • Where: Black Dog, St. Paul • Who: Nathan Hanson, saxophones; Brian Roessler, bass; Daniel Levin, cello; Pete Hennig, drums

L2R: Hanson, Hennig, Levin, Roessler
Oh, those Merlins were exciting on Friday. Playing for an overflow crowd at the Black Dog, they gave us two full, variegated, concentrated sets of melody and improvisation. They pulled from their velvet bag of existing compositions and also featured works by their new cellist, Daniel Levin, who officially became a Fantastic Merlin in January.

Levin is the Merlins’ third cellist. The first, Jacqueline Ultan, moved on to other projects after recording A Handful of Earth. She was followed by Matt Turner, heard on How the Light Gets In, who soon had scheduling conflicts.

Levin initially joined the band for a weeklong tour of France in 2010. “From the very first note we played together,” wrote the Merlins on their website, “it was clear that we are all on similar trajectories.” Jean Rochard, producer of How the Light Gets In (and founder of the French record label Nato), was at their debut show in France, before 500 people. He says that Levin was an immediate fit.

I’ve loved the Merlins since the first time I saw them play, but this is a different band, with a different energy level. Not to cast the slightest aspersion on any of the previous versions, but there’s more—how to say it?—testosterone now. Levin is a fierce, aggressive player, and the whole band seems tougher, edgier, badder. They’re still the lyrical, musical Merlins, but with more of a swagger. It’s a boy band.

Levin isn’t always fierce. Sometimes he coaxes sounds from the cello, leaning into it with gentle regard. Other times, however, he seems about to pull it apart or set it on fire with the force of his playing. 

In The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, author Thad Carhart writes that Liszt played the piano so hard during concerts that the stage would be littered with broken pianos. I thought about that while watching Levin play, and I prayed for that borrowed cello.

Photo by John Whiting.

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