Performing folk songs from the canon, many of which are featured in the forthcoming Coen brothers film "Inside Llewyn Davis" and its soundtrack, what followed on Sunday night was three-plus hours focused on hard truths and tested faith, on doubt, death and, of course, rocket ships to the moon.
A movie set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, "Inside Llewyn Davis" features music curated by T Bone Burnett, and though the night bore his imprimatur, it was the artists who burned.
Specifically: Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Jack White, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, the Punch Brothers, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, the Milk Carton Kids -- take a breath, because the lineup was packed with talent -- Oscar Isaac, the Avett Bros., Conor Oberst, Secret Sisters, Willie Watson, the Carolina Chocolate Drops' Rhiannon Giddens and more delivered sharpened songs on acoustic instruments, singing in pitch perfect tone that left an oft-awestruck audience silently stunned -- then vocally thrilled.
One by one they came, drawn to a stage that over the years has supported some of the greats. It was Bob Dylan's gig at Town Hall 50 years ago, for example, that prompted the New York Times' Robert Shelton to write a rave that helped propel the erstwhile troubadour to stardom.
The Punch Brothers, led by Chris Thile, greeted the crowd with a languid version of "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds," then transitioned into the evening's backing band. Mandolin, banjo, bass, guitar and fiddle, the portable instruments that have carried the music through the decades, drove voices consumed by the spirit of hand-me-down folk.
"Hang me, oh hang me, and I'll be dead and gone," sang Isaac in "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." The singer and actor plays the titular character in "Inside Llewyn Davis," and the song opens and closes the film. Loosely based on the late singer Dave Van Ronk, "Davis" focuses on the plight of a struggling singer to prove his gift to an often hard and unforgiving world. Isaac's portrayal succeeds because he's such a talented musician.
The night's narrative was driven by something more elusive than plot, though, and the wonder was divided equally between the songs themselves and the many thrilling interpretations. I don't know if I've ever been in a room with so many humans with perfect pitch. Notes soared with pure vocal and instrumental virtuosity as young voices embodied ancient emotions.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings channeled the Carter Family for "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a deathly ode to eternal bliss featuring dueling guitar and mandolin solos. Actor/singer Stark Sands, who plays an earnest Southern singer in the film, offered the sweet folk-pop song "Last Thing on My Mind." Lake Street Dive highlighted magnetic vocalist Rachael Price, drawing from folk and jazz for "Go Down Smooth."
Over and over, the boldfaced names proved their status. Jack White delivered a typically raw and honest version of "My Mama's Baby Child," a song over the years interpreted by artists including Bukka White and Lightnin' Hopkins. He also offered one of the evening's sweetest moments, in his song with the White Stripes, "We're Going to Be Friends." Marcus Mumford's rendition of "I Was Young When I Left Home" was utterly heartbreaking: honest, real and without pretense.
Amid a night of so many peaks, though, one raucous moment stood out: Elvis Costello, who was serving as Justin Timberlake's understudy, did a rendition of one of the highlights of "Inside Llewyn Davis." Called "Please Mr. Kennedy," the song is performed in the movie by Timberlake, Isaac and actor Adam Driver, and is a quick-tempoed time capsule to 1962 that features lines about rocket ships.
Onstage, Costello pleaded with the new president in song while Driver, best known for his role as Lena Dunham's off-and-on boyfriend in "Girls," offered wickedly funny harmonies: rocket sounds, lip-blubbers, meteoric accents. Combined with the Punch Brothers' backing, it was a joyous romp amid all the tragedy.
The only quibble was an omission. Though the evening was a celebration of folk music, it was also a benefit concert for the National Recording Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to "preserve and make accessible the recorded history of the United States." It's a noble, incredibly important cultural cause, and though the proceeds of the show will go to the organization, the mission wasn't mentioned during the concert. That was a shame, because the argument of the music's importance was utterly convincing on Sunday.