click to enlarge Max Norton

Photo by James Dechert

Max Norton

Zeena Parkins shatters all conventions of the harp, Max Norton emerges from Benjamin Booker’s shadow, the Delta Troubadours pick up what Kings of Leon lost 


Again, the mighty congress of the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Civic Minded 5 and the Timucua Arts Foundation produces an exceptional presentation. Whenever you see an event bearing the name of any of these arts organizations, it's worthy of note. But when they work in league, it's essential.

Prominent avant-garde harpist Zeena Parkins was the latest outreach performance by the great Master Artist-in-Residence Program at the ACA. Like fellow harp experimentalist Mary Lattimore, who played Orlando in February with Parquet Courts, Parkins sports a weighty collaborative résumé that includes John Zorn, Yoko Ono, Björk, Thurston Moore and Matmos. But with a career that reaches back to the '80s NYC scene, Parkins is even more of an original gangster.

Immediate proof that this wasn't going to be an ordinary show was when a dozen chairs were placed onstage surrounding the artist – at Parkins' request – for any audience members game enough. So there I was, stage left.

Though Parkins is famed for her work with electric harp, this performance was acoustic. But she fully embraced the format, wielding its dynamics and plumbing its depths, like when she dipped her fingers in water to make them glide over the strings to whisper a gossamer and otherworldly melody.

Like any true and forward practitioner of new music, wildly progressive concept and technique are Parkins' calling card, something demonstrated liberally in the compositions she developed while in residency here in Florida. During one piece, she explored the harp's anatomy, including its non-musical parts, with a metal pipe brush. In another, her use of flat wooden sticks as bows looked and sounded as if she was sawing down her instrument, like an act of destruction as creation. No, this is not your pearly gates kind of fare. Nothing is easy about this listening. In fact, it's not even particularly lovely. It can be tense, violent, eviscerating.

Parkins' work is the kind of truly modern musical language that's predicated on very little traditional historical reference. A collision of classical training and vanguard spirit, this is finally a vision and expression of the harp that's equal to the instrument's physical command. And it brought down the house.


Although their recordings are decent, it's the stage performance of Gainesville's Delta Troubadours that clinches it. Stout and Southern, this is blues-rock that needs to be experienced live to fully feel how true and contemporary their rock & roll spirit is. The inclusion of an early, pre-arena Kings of Leon cover ("Molly's Chambers") in their set says a lot about where they're coming from. If instead of detouring into glossy indie rock, the Kings had just stayed the course, dug in deep and cranked it up, you'd have the Delta Troubadours.

Both Tampa sons, opener Max Norton is also known as the drummer for Florida breakout Benjamin Booker. Often, the company you keep can be telling. So, considering how completely impressive Booker has been (his eponymous debut album made my Top 10 of 2014), this was a bet worth taking.

While Booker smolders with a soul-blues-punk inferno, Norton strokes pastoral indie folk with lots of scale, sweep and open sky. Atop the panorama, his voice is wistful and lightly weathered, like a more genteel Will Johnson. Even as leading man, Norton still mans the drums live while also singing and playing guitar. But in addition to his one-man band setup, he was accompanied by a separate bassist. Consider further Norton's horizon-shooting musical flourishes and his hollow-body guitar, and the result was much closer to a full band than a scrappy two-piece garage band.

With a view that's widescreen and immaculate, he's got the youth and style that could do well in the contemporary folk tide that's surging right now, but enough taste to not succumb to the more saccharine trappings of the class. Even though he's trying to rise in the shadow of a meteor, there's certainly enough substance here for Max Norton to count on his own if given enough light. And now you can't say nobody told you.

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