Bright and company shine in Absolute extravaganza

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Crystal Bright in a wistful moment behind her trusty accordion. (Caleb Smallwood)

by Anthony Harrison

Everyone knows Crystal Bright has been spectacular for years. But her newest effort affords Bright the opportunity to elevate her live act to the level of divine spectacle.

At the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on Jan. 31, Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands — and many more — showed off The Absolute Elsewhere, a collaboration with DividingME photographer Rusty McDonald and a circus of performers, including acrobats, mimes, dancers and jugglers.

While Bright and company dominated the night, the two opening acts deserve special mention. On tour together, Cincinnati’s Molly Sullivan and Michigan’s Chris Bathgate performed splendid, solo electric sets with funny similarities and differences. Sullivan — striking in black dress and raven hair, playing a white Les Paul copy — sang her spacey, sensual pop in a smooth, airy alto reminiscent of Annie Clark; Bathgate tended towards simpler, alt-country sounds and structures with a twangy Epiphone Casino.

Even though their styles diverged wildly, they both used loop stations and other effects pedals to expand their sonic possibilities.

“We didn’t know each other before the tour,” Sullivan said. “[Bathgate] didn’t even know I’m a looper.”

Bathgate had found Sullivan’s music on Bandcamp, which led to the eventual tour.

“We’ve been getting along famously,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan and Bathgate performed together for the latter’s final song.

“We’ve tried to sing this song the past two shows, and we’ve both burst into laughter,” Bathgate said.

Sullivan and Bathgate’s voices blended beautifully and Sullivan boomed on a floor tom while Bathgate dirtied his Casino’s tone during an earworm “do-do-do” chorus.

They made it through the number sans hysterics.

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Between both opening sets, the growing crowd was treated to tastes of the entertainment to come. Two dancers performed to house music, employing LED-illuminated hoops, batons and bolas to dazzle the audience with kaleidoscopic swirls and geometric patterns as they spun through the air and around the dancers’ bodies.

Crystal Bright & the Silver Hands then invaded the stage. The mini-orchestra featured electric and acoustic guitar, upright and electric bass, cello, viola, trombone, mandolin, drum kit, auxiliary percussion and backup vocalists, as well as Bright’s own myriad instruments: keyboard, accordion, singing saw, a giant Japanese taiko drum and an odd percussion instrument called a stump fiddle.

The band played nearly every song from Bright’s new album, The Absolute Elsewhere, the music signifying both Bright’s perennial strengths as well as new explorations. Bright and the Silver Hands jaunted through minor-key swings, love dirges and haunting ballads, her astonishing vocal range bolstering nearly every number. But her newest offerings seemed darker, the whimsy of her earlier work replaced with wrought emotion sometimes bordering on existential dread.

This is no complaint — each song stunned in its sincerity.

While the night blended visual art, theatricality and musical performance, The Absolute Elsewhere stands on its own as a triumph if Crystal Bright & the Silver Hands’ set was any indication.

The Absolute Elsewhere can and can’t stand on its own, though — after all, it is a collaborative effort. During each song, McDonald’s photographs which inspired Bright to write each song were projected behind the band. They were surreal, sometimes disturbing images with muted, de-saturated colors — trees shrouded in daytime fog, a woman with twigs erupting from her mouth, Bright herself in a black gown holding an orb of lightning.

The real thrills of the evening came from the shifting, theatrical performances. Each amplified the impact of the music and photography. Amazingly acrobatic mime Jacob Felder, burlesque dancer Foxy Moxy and aerial acrobat Sabrina Woods, who wrapped the hanging drapes around her body to form balletic poses in mid-air, wowed the crowd as much as Bright’s songs.

The set ended with an enthusiastic encore — something of a surprise in the form of an old favorite.

“This one’s a sing-along,” Bright said, and she conducted the audience to sing the hook of “Especially Your Mother,” the lead-off track off her first full-length album, Muses and Bones.

A dance party ensued in the formerly cordoned area in front of the stage, including the circus, melding audience and performers together in final ecstasy.

Some bands feature similar theatricality and spectacle; Of Montreal and Raleigh’s T0W3RS come to mind. But the music and performers never before integrated as naturally as they did with The Absolute Elsewhere. It makes sense, for after all, Bright’s music has that carnivalesque touch — a circus in the midst of a fever dream.