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A Merge Group Plays Heroes documents the full live tribute to the classic David Bowie album from a carefully assembled all-star group of Merge Records veteran musicians. Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer) takes on the venerable Bowie lead vocal spot (I mean, who else could it have been?). Mac McCaughan of Superchunk leads the band in dual guitar mode with Nashville virtuoso WIlliam Tyler. Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner gives Eno a run for his money in the keyboard/synthesizer role while free jazz legend Ken Vandermark provides a new, alien texture to Bowie's compositions. The rhythm section of Megafaun's Brad Cook & Joe Westerlund keep everyone in check, themselves no stranger to balancing the weirdness with the groove.
And now a word from Mac:
In October of 2015 I got an email from Amy Russell, the Director of Programming at Carolina Performing Arts. She told me about a celebration of Philip Glass's 80th birthday planned for January of 2017 & asked if I would want to be involved somehow -- without knowing what that would entail, i just said "yes." Soon she proposed pairing a symphonic performance of Glass's Symphony No. 4, which is based on David Bowie's Heroes album with a rock performance of the Bowie album.
This was an exciting idea, but performing an album straight in its entirety always feels a little boring to me because everyone familiar with the record knows what's coming next... but in Glass's case, his symphony does not adhere strictly to the track listing of the original Bowie album, which meant that we didn't need to, either. I was mostly excited about being able to collaborate with musicians i don't normally get to play with, and to play this amazing music with them.
Three months later David Bowie's death hit everyone hard and we discussed whether to move ahead, but as 2016 progressed Bowie's music only seemed more important. When everyone I asked to take part said "yes" immediately even though the concert was a year away & we didn't know what shape it would take, it was a good sign.
Eventually we settled on a set list that was a combination of Glass's (which added Abdulmajid to the album's tracks) and our own desire to hear Bejar sing "Beauty And The Beast" and "Joe The Lion" which Glass left off his.
Brad Cook, Joe Westerlund & I got together once or twice to learn the songs because we knew we would only have one real rehearsal with the whole band. When Dan, William & Ken descended upon Chapel Hill and Jenn returned from tour, we had a great day figuring out how to play these songs all together, and convened for the performance the next day in ornate Memorial Hall.
Halfway through soundcheck on the day of the performance, we learned that all water in the town of Chapel Hill was deemed unsafe to drink due to a water main break and a pump failure in the great Orange County water system, UNC campus had to be abandoned, and the show was cancelled. We staged a secret last-minute performance at the Pinhook (in Durham, where the water is always safe) just because we wanted to play this record, but the actual show at Memorial Hall was postponed by several months. So the recording you hear is actually our band reunion & the second ever performance of A Merge Group. And the "Heroes" on the record is our version of of Glass's version of Bowie's classic record. So much fun to play and I'm glad there's a document. - Mac McCaughan