Fences w/ Sun Dummy
The Vera Project, Seattle, WA
I didn’t think he was going to show up. It wasn’t until the afternoon of his Vera Project show that I received confirmation from his PR that I could photograph Fences – nee Christopher Mansfield – for his return to a Seattle stage. No matter, I already had a ticket in my hesitant hand.
Mansfield has been known to flake, to cancel a show at the last minute. He has repeatedly blown up his social media accounts with messages that “the band is over” or that he “just can’t do it anymore,” including multiple times shortly before this Vera show. So despite wanting for him to sell out a show, to have people hear the bounty he has to offer, it was somewhat surprising that – while not sold out – the room was as full as it was. Thankfully, for those that had faith, he did show up, and he did deliver.
Sun Dummy – the alias of Seattle’s Liz Costello – opened the show with a half hour set featuring a mic stand, an Epiphone, and an M13 Stompbox. A single amp was stationed at the back of the stage. At the first round of applause, Costello commented “It sounds like there are a lot more people in here than there are.” Sure, the room held a scattered crowd, but she definitely held their attention. Her tuning issues turned into humor, into connection with the crowd over Standard tuning is supposed to be easy,” as she said. You can tell she’s paying attention to her feelings, to the shadows, to the psyche of relationships both in and out. It was a perfect way to open the night, an ideal set up to the tenderness and self-deprecation coming our way.
When Mansfield finally took the stage to a fuller crowd almost an hour later, he did so by first forgetting his guitar. After carefully arranging a two-liter Sprite bottle with his set list on a tall stool, and stopping to hug a friend at the edge of the stage, he reappeared with his pastel guitar. He noted aloud how quiet the room was, forgot to turn on the amp, and asked everyone what their names were. “Does anybody have any questions,” Mansfield asked. “How are you,” a voice rises from the crowd. “What does that mean,” says Mansfield. Touché. And thus the tone was set for a 17-song set, only four of which have been recorded, and enough personality to hibernate with for a while.
With his latest EP To The Tall Trembling Trees set to release the next day, there seemed to be no investment in covering old material. “Temple Dreaming” came early, followed by newest single “Buffalo Feet,” getting the crowd singing quietly along, but this was not a raucous show. Each track was a nervous, tender exploration of what felt like unsure territory. Between almost every song, Mansfield stopped to chat with the crowd, to reveal some new self-deprecating remark like “Man, I’m just playing a bunch of sad shit,” or “it’s important if you feel messy to have messy heroes.” There are personal stories, stories about his family, his friends, his child, and about being mistaken for Carrie Underwood’s band at a local restaurant (she is playing at the same time, next door at KeyArena).
Whether you call what Mansfield does “indie-folk” or “tortured singer-songwriter” it is always heartbreakingly self-aware. The terrain of his lyrics is that of recognition, of recounting a life that has been both lived and blurred, of love both heavenly and full of regret. While listening to the onslaught of tracks he admitted to have written over the last week, it is a retelling of internal experience, but one that an entire room of strangers stands silent to hear. Mansfield’s ability to hold rapt a audience is proof that there is brilliance in his work. He played “Running Off the Gods” and an entire room felt both fear and promise with bated breath. This buoyantly pessimistic balance is Fences’ draw.
An audience member asked Mansfield to play something off his 2008 EP The Ultimate Puke and he can’t. “Really, I literally don’t know it anymore. If I knew it I’d play it for you,” he said, “I’m pretty much just working through my own shit using your guys’ hard money. It was a cheap show, though, right?” It was. For just $12, a spellbound crowd was treated to his well-crafted biography, a devastatingly good story featuring dark corners and occasional beams of hope. Mansfield asked if anyone in the crowd knew all the lyrics to an old song, and if they did, they could come up and sing it. So a guy jumped up and did the vocals to “Sadie” from his 2010 self-titled LP, while he strummed out a melody in the spotlight before he closed the show with his 2015 Macklemore & Ryan Lewis collaboration, “Arrows.”
This awkwardness – whether it is someone else singing, or songs we don’t know, or Mansfield repeatedly asking if he sounded okay, if everyone was doing alright – was admittedly endearing. Whether or not anyone ever hears from Fences again, live, or on record, seems to remain a gamble. But at least for now, he can be sure there are still plenty of people willing to place their bets.
Review and photos by Stephanie Dore