It was 13 years ago when Joel and Ethan Coen and T-Bone Burnett managed to revive a dormant but not dead genre and kick the music industry's expectations in the face to the tune of nearly 8 million copies. It doesn't seem like that long since O Brother, Where Art Thou? But in those intervening years, the three continued to refine one of the great symbioses in the business of film music.
When word surfaced that the Coens' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, was to be set in the pre-Dylan folk music scene in New York, gears started turning. Could they do it again? A lot has happened in the music industry since O Brother. But Inside Llewyn Davis' soundtrack, co-produced with Marcus Mumford, streamed via NPR a month before its release — an ideal fusion of market and message, and a smart choice to promote the film following its winning of the Grand Jury prize at Cannes. The film and its soundtrack are made to resonate with today's vinyl fetishists and analog aficionados, and its stars, Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands and Carey Mulligan, also sing their songs (for the most part live) in the film, indirectly addressing all the backhanded comments attributing much of O Brother's success to George Clooney lip-synching along to Dan Tyminski.
One aspect that Burnett and the Coens have decided to explore again is the documentary concert film. Down From the Mountain (playing at The Belcourt Dec. 13, 14 and 19 as part of its Coen Brothers retrospective) took O Brother's music and gave it back to the many artists who performed it, both for the film and in the non-cinematic world. For Llewyn, the concert that took place on Sept. 29 — a three-hour-plus extravaganza of folk, faith and freedom — was documented for a film called Another Day/Another Time, and it was transformative.
It was an army of contemporary music's freakiest and folkiest. Nashville was ably represented by Jack White and the always enthralling team of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, each wowing with multiple numbers. The Punch Brothers were the house band for a majority of the evening, with legends (Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth and Elvis Costello "as Justin Timberlake's understudy") and indie/Americana powerhouses like Mumford, The Avett Brothers and Keb' Mo' all contributing, showing the innovation and talent that the genre has wrought over the decades since the 1961 setting of Inside Llewyn Davis. Could anything top a stage-filling jam to Smith's "People Have the Power" or Baez's spine-tingling "Which Side Are You On?"
Actually, yes. I'd never heard of Rhiannon Giddens before that night. It is a mistake since rectified. She stole the whole show, coming on toward the beginning of the second act, following Jack White. She sang "Waterboy" like she channeled the soul of Odetta from the earth and the ether, and it was transcendent and powerful, like the sounds that Baby Suggs and the women deployed in Toni Morrison's Beloved. And then she did two Gaelic numbers — "S'iomadh Rid the Dhith Om" and "Ciamar a Ni Mi" — and tore the roof off of Town Hall to a thunderous standing ovation. That ineffable connection and community that folk music at its heart represents was made real and tangible. The fact that the rest of the world will also get to experience it is just proof that it's foolish to underestimate what Burnett and the Coens can come up with.