Concert Review: The Mynabirds with Big Harp – 3-21-12 at Vaudeville Mews

The Mynabirds. Shot with my cell phone from one of the unique vantage points at Vaudeville Mews.


The beauty of a place like Vaudeville Mews is that if you idolize the right people, eventually you will share a room with them. Not an arena, an honest and true room. Vaudeville Mews is not the most visually pleasing venue in town, especially with shiny new places like Wooly’s, Gas Lamp, and Bombay Bicycle Club all opening over the last year-ish. I mean, there was a point where I was standing in gum. Just straight up gum on the bottom of my shoe. But you don’t go to Vaudeville Mews for the craft beer and the decor, you go for the music. While it is true that Mews is both the music venue where you’d least like to take a number two and music venue where you are most likely to stumble on a torn bit of carpet, it is also the venue where you will most likely see the most talent, local or national.

Last Wednesday night was no exception, as the Omaha based Mynabirds made their triumphant return to Des Moines. I am a huge fan, as evidenced by the preview last week, so needless to say I was excited for this one. I also got to go to this show for free, thanks in equal part to my eagerness and my obliviousness. Earlier in the day, The Mynabirds tweeted out that the first person to retweet would get free tickets. I thought that was a nice gesture, so in order to help spread the message of what a nice band they were, I did what any sensible person would do. I retweeted it. I won. (Incidentally, my Twitter handle is @davidjmurphy10 if you’re interested in following me.)

I arrived late, so unfortunately I missed Des Moines’ Dustin Smith and The Sunday Silos. I am a little familiar with them, but not familiar enough to do a pretend write-up and try and fake everyone out. So, if anyone from Dustin Smith and the Sunday Silos are reading this, my deepest apologies and I will try to make it up to you.

I got in just in time for Big Harp to start. Big Harp is also a band on the Omaha based Saddle Creek records. They share a similar sound, but a little more folk and a little less experimental. They had a hipster sensibility about them. The bassist was an attractive woman, her hair was black and bobbed with a her bangs cut in a way that perfectly framed her face. The singer was a bearded gent who wore an old fashioned hat. His voice was like a slightly Southern Lou Reed with some slight nods to Leonard Cohen. Their music was old fashioned as well, as they had melodies that called back as much to the clubs of Nashville in the 1950’s, the blues halls of Chicago and even the saloons of Tombstone, Arizona as it did to a more contemporary sound.

I listened to them as intently as I could, but at one point during the set, she walked out. She being Laura Burhenn, lead singer of The Mynabirds. While I was undoubtedly a little smitten prior to walking through the door, there is something magnetic about her. She too had bangs, but longer and lighter hair. The bangs were just disheveled enough that her face wasn’t perfectly framed, but it almost made her look even better. She looked like the artist girl you had a crush on in high school that you never had the guts to tell anyone you actually liked because all your friends thought she was weird.

She carried herself in a way that seemed above everyone else, but not in a stuck up way. Almost royally. She smiled brightly with anyone who stopped to say hello or buy a t-shirt. She made eye contact with the few who had the nerve to talk to her and carried herself non-verbally like she was reconnecting with old friends. That is one of the best things about Mews. Your heroes are people, just like you. Rarely do you ever get to experience them as anything but the God-like creatures they appear either on stage or through your speakers. But in a small room like this, you realize that they are people, too. Despite all of this, I still never got the nerve to go talk to her. I just somehow didn’t feel worthy. (As an aside, I was lucky enough to catch them the next night in Minneapolis after Andrew WK. I still never had the nerve…)

The Mynabirds took the stage, and Burhenn started the set with a fox on her head (you can slightly make out the fox in the photo above) and I stood to the side of the stage. She was rail thin and wore heels that looked to have some sort of handmade knit cover, almost like what my grandmother would knit to cover the tissue box in the bathroom. She wore a black, sheer shirt but it was still a classy top. The music commanded the room more than the band did, as they sounded as good as a band of their layers and levels can in a room such as this. The bass was dirty and the guitar was quick. Burhenn played the keys and the three women in her band all harmonized together. On the record, it sounds like a choir. As it turns out, the three of them are just that strong, vocally. The interesting electronic drum and the various surprise percussion appeared at unexpected times. It was like I got to see how the sausage was made when it came to how they achieved the sound they do on the LP’s. As a non-musician, it was enlightening.

They played songs from their first album What We Lose In The Fire, We Gain In The Flood, but also from their upcoming release, at one point teaching the men and women in the crowd their respective parts in the new single “Generals” in an adorably playful way. She seemed as if she was embarrassed at the cliche of the lead singer giving the crowd a participation tutorial, but at the same time proud that she got to do it. They ended the first part of their set with the jaunty and beautiful “Numbers Don’t Lie” and returned for a brief encore with “What We Gained In The Fire” and closing the set with another new song.

All in all, it was a beautiful experience. But that’s the beauty of the Mews. Beyond its grimy exterior is the soul of music itself. It is a room for people who want to be heard and a room for people who want to listen. I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about how to be a proper reporter and I learned a lot about music. Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out how to get gum off my shoe.


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