When May and June roll around, the heat chases most Dallasites inside, but in the Arts District downtown, there exists a place to escape the sweltering summer.
The Nasher Sculpture Center’s shaded grove provides a cool respite from the impending heat, and every third Friday the museum hosts “til Midnight at the Nasher,” where guests can enjoy the museum’s installations, a concert and projected movie for free. For May’s iteration, indie artists Julie Byrne and Vagabon entertained guests prior to the black comedy “Harold and Maude.”
A wide range of guests took in Byrne’s soothing acoustic numbers on the lawn, as young families sat next to high school kids and retirees on bean bags, eating pre-ordered Central Market picnic bags, street tacos and Steel City Pops. Barefoot men wearing Apple watches sipped Shiner Bocks alongside women in sundresses. The Buffalo, New York native’s thoughtful songs sound like Florence and the Machine grew up listening to Sarah McLachlan. Framed by adolescent live oak trees strung with bulbs, the setting matched the Byrne’s pensive lyrics, fingerpicking guitar and resonant voice.
Byrne sings of the natural world, transporting the audience from Dallas to a place with natural skylines and trees that weren’t planted by horticulture consultants. She was joined by effervescent synth from her producer Eric Littman, who mirrored the energy of her songs and providing texture to her sonorous voice and buoyant guitar. Her vocals call back to a lost decade, but the instrumentation is right at home in 2018.
Byrne’s song ‘Melting Grid,’ from her 2017 album ‘Not Even Happiness’ longs for an escape to a more natural setting, and seems to reject western materialism while longing for companionship. “Because money’s not the thing that’s ever given me sight,” she sings. “Our conversation, it banks in me…I thought of it for days after, even months after the moments were gone.”
As the sun went down, the crowd filled in, occupying most of the lawn. Byrne remained seated on stage, her voice in sync with the acoustic guitar throughout, conversing with the audience but remaining focused on her music, which naturally transports the listener to another place. In ‘I Live Now As a Singer,’ her final song, she sang of lost love. “There ain’t no use fighting for me/My heart ain’t in the ring for you,” she told a past love. Byrne’s continuous imagery make songs of imperfect love sound beautiful. “At night beneath the universe you walk with me/Shall I be ever near the edge of your mystery.”
Vagabon followed Byrne, and the New York City artist alternated between acoustic guitar and electronic beats. Vagabon is Laetitia Tamko, who was born in Cameroon and moved to New York when she was 13 as her parents pursued their education. She has an engineering degree herself. Her unique sound is amplified by the fact that she plays drums, bass and synth.
Vagabon’s songs would be right at home in the ending sequence of a Wes Anderson film, with Bill Murray and a Wilson brother deep into a caper in some iconoclastic vehicle. Starring in her own NPR Tiny Desk Concert this spring, she demonstrated a perfect balance of polish and soul, her unique voice fluttering along its wide range, the songs’ abrupt endings keeping the audience on its toes. Though she remained seated, her breathy notes filled the garden and paired well with her acoustic finger picking, and the audience engaged with her music as the night wore on. Though it was the last day of the duo’s tour, Vagabon’s energy and focus made for a quietly intense show.
Her newest album, ‘Infinite Worlds,’ asks listeners to relax and watch the clouds pass between the trees. Her song ‘The Embers’ is both self-deprecating and confident. She sings, “I feel so small/My feet can barely touch the floor/On the bus where is everybody is tall” and she calls herself “A small fish.” But her vocals and music are anything but the work of a small fish, and the repeated refrain seems a more apt description of what is on the horizon for this young artist: “Run and tell everybody that Laetitia is.”
Will Maddox is the editor of the East Dallas Advocate, a hyper-local publication that covers neighborhood news. When he isn’t writing, you will find him hiking with his wife Katie and pit bull Doris.
Cover photo: Vagabon and Julie Byrne by Tonje Thilesen