For a little over a week now, Julian Koster has been touring as The Music Tapes on an invite-only Christmas caroling tour. The premise is pretty simple: he laid out a path of tentative tour dates across the eastern half of the country. Then, he requested for interested parties who lived on or near that path to invite him into their homes for a round of good old-fashioned caroling.
Due to the nature of a tour like this, every show is going to be different based on the location, the hosts, and the crowd. Last night's show was held at a house/venue that calls itself the Ameroplace, the hosts provided free beer, and the crowd was made up of college kids and coffee shop hipsters. Even though the house was packed, the crowd was dead silent in order to hear Koster quietly introduce himself. Actually, he first introduced his singing saw, which should surprise no one who is familiar with his almost parental affection towards these instruments. The particular saw that he brought along on this tour is named Badger, and it is eight years old. It will always be eight years old, as he explained, because saws don't age like humans do. Badger was very excited to be performing for us last night.
Koster's set was relatively short, because in addition to playing for us, he had to go caroling to other houses. He played songs from his recent album, The Singing Saw at Christmastime, as well as songs from Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes. He introduced one of the Christmas carols by explaining that it was “found in the white meaty part of an orange, like some people see the Virgin Mary on their toast.” The Christmas carols were all solo saw pieces. Each of them lasted less than a minute, which is good, because it felt as though the entire crowd was holding its breath in order to hear every note. After the carols, Koster played Clouds and Tornadoes standout “Freeing Song for Reindeer,” which was the highlight of the set. He explained that his banjo might sound different, because after its neck was broken, it was mended with pirates' teeth. Any dental-related tone problems, however, hardly took away from the majesty of the song.
After Koster finished his set, the caroling portion of the evening began. Koster, his (appropriately named) dog Rudolph, and about thirty people from the crowd took a walk around the block. We sang to people who opened their doors, people who didn't open their doors, and people who just looked suspiciously at us through their windows. However, after realizing that we collectively only knew two songs (“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Silent Night”) we headed back to the house. As the crowd was thinning out, Koster told a ten-minute long rhyming story called “The Tearjerker,” which required him to speak in a strange quasi-English accent. He then recounted the beginning of his relationship with singing saws—he had a dream with a strange sound in it, heard the same sound much later as he was walking through Central Park, and followed it to a man playing the saw. He then learned how to play from Moses Josiah, who is famed for his Mystical Musical Saw.
Overall, this was less a concert than a loosely organized, music-based celebration. It allowed the artist to relate to the fans on a much more intimate basis than even the smallest venue could provide. And, during the caroling, the line was blurred even further: everyone in the crowd was, in some since, a musician, and the musician was part of the crowd. In a way, this captured the childlike, exploratory aspect of Koster's music. But mostly, it was just fun. As Julian said, “I never get to do shit like this.”