By Laura Ferreiro
It's not often that going to a concert involves hiking through the desert for two hours with the performing musicians, dodging rattlesnakes, and getting stung by cactus plants, but that's exactly how the "Quietest Show on Earth" featuring Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt began.
The unique show, which took place October 8 in Joshua Tree, was originally supposed to happen in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park, and was nearly canceled because of the U.S. federal government shutdown that has ground the country to a halt and closed government-run entities, including all National Parks. But thanks to a long-standing relationship the Quietest Show sponsor Nature Valley has with the Mojave Desert Land Trust – a parcel of land next to the National Park that will likely be annexed into it later this year – the concert went ahead on this remote, windswept Joshua Tree-filled plain.
Living up to its name as the Quietest Show on Earth, the performance by Bird and Merritt was completely unamplified (with the exception of microphones used solely for recording purposes) and entirely acoustic. Bird, renowned for his unique style of strumming, plucking, and bowing his violin as well as his incredible whistling prowess, delivered an inspired performance accompanied by Merritt on backing vocals and an acoustic guitar as the sun set over the Mojave Desert.
The two talented musicians ran through several of Bird's tracks including "Dear Old Greenland," "Sweetbreads" and "Something Biblical," which seemed perfectly suited for the desert environs. Merritt provided gorgeous harmonies as the pair sang toward the sky and Bird whistled into the wind. Without using any percussion or the looping pedals that Bird frequently employs, it was a very stripped-down set that showcased Bird's natural talents without any embellishments.
"Good job on the hike. That was no Sunday walk!" Bird told the small crowd following the hike as they watched the show while relaxing on blankets laid out on the sand. Attended by just four Nature Valley sweepstakes winners and their guests (as well the film crew, the team that organized the event, and a couple of journalists), it was an incredibly intimate affair made even more special by the fact that nearly everyone had the chance to chat with Bird and Merritt during the hike and after the performance. The diverse audience included a librarian from Mississippi and a biologist from Florida.
Bird and Merritt frequently referred to the setlist anchored in the sand by rocks to keep it from blowing away, and generously played beyond the five songs that were being recorded for charity. "We want to give you a full show so we're gonna keep going," Bird said, ending the 45-minute set with "Happy Day" and "First Song."
The concert and the live recording of Bird and Merritt's gorgeous performance is due to be released online in late October to raise funds and draw attention to the mission of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), which protects, enhances and restores the shorelines, woodlands, canyons and deserts that make up the U.S. National Parks. Check out the teaser video below.
When asked why he wanted to participate in the Quietest Show on Earth, Bird said that he really enjoys performing in non-traditional venues, but there was also a more important reason. "What sold me is that this is all benefiting the National Parks Association," said the soft-spoken musician. "Hopefully it will get people to pay attention to the fact that these parks aren't as protected as we think. There are a lot of mining, drilling, and logging interests threatening them. The government can't protect them alone."
Bird said that this cause is especially close to his heart because he has spent a lot of time in national parks hiking and mountain biking, and has fond memories of visiting Yellow Stone National Park with his family as a kid. "I like doing anything that gets me outdoors," said the Chicago native, who recently relocated to Los Angeles because its great weather will allow him to do just that.
It also happens that Bird's music, with echoes of Appalachian folk and an organic style that doesn't require amplified guitars or heavy percussion to get its point across, was a perfect fit for the Quietest Show on Earth.
"Andrew's music is touching and emotional, which is great for where we are," said Nature Valley's Marketing Associate Director Michelle Peterson as she prepared to embark on the hike. "After the show we'll have a play list that people can download from the event that will hopefully inspire people to donate to the National Parks and get engaged."
Peterson explained that because the granola bar and nut company's mission is to connect people with nature, this event was a perfect fit for them. "Music is another way that people can connect with nature," she pointed out. To date, Nature Valley has donated more than $1.8 million to the National Parks Conservation Association, funding preservation projects at national parks across the country.
While nobody took decibel level readings at the event to prove whether it was indeed the "Quietest Show on Earth," there's no doubt it came close, and it can definitely be considered one of the most exclusive and special shows on Earth.