It’s not typical all-ages MassArt Friday-night protocol to stick a solo upright-bassist right in the middle of the night — the bare-walled, no-chaired Room 181 here isn’t exactly big on spots for lounging and reflecting — but having Nat Baldwin open for the hyperactive Big Digits last Friday ended up being one of those awkwardly DIY kitchen-sink moments that make you wonder why every bill isn’t this weird.
Prior to Baldwin’s set, Northampton’s Eric Hnatow ("like potato . . .") served as a sort of one-man musical rodeo clown, setting up a spread of blinking samplers and sequencers, going balls-out in an Atom and His Package/Dan Deacon routine, bunny-hopping, log-rolling, and doubling over in Ian MacKaye poses as a scrappy collection of Casiotone dance blasted from a fuzzy practice amp. He threw on a hoodie wired with Christmas lights, rapped posi anthems about acquired skills, and generally wiped the floor with passive bystanders wearing "impress-me" faces.
Baldwin — a classically trained New Hampshire musician who served in Dirty Projecters for a stretch — stepped around the blacklights and planted his upright bass on a sheet of carpet at the head of the room, shook out his bow, and got to work. His style is loopy, intimate, and immediate — there’s not a lot of getting-to-know-you distance. He strings his vocals over the songs like TP over tree branches, fluttering over every syllable with quivering, melismatic pause before moving on. When he sings the words “thick skin,” it sounds like 15 delicate little syllables.
The second half of his set careered through more fluttery melodies and bobbed into scratchy, scraping tangents. Baldwin hunched all the way over the top of his bass, issuing the slow-motion clickings of a stopwatch one moment and waxy squiggles and metallic crunches the next, segueing as if unconsciously to the set of trotting quarter-notes that underlie his supremely tense anthem “Into the Lights Out.” As his last note died out in the shadow of a looming, sugar-addled Big Digits set (during which Hnatow re-emerged to dump a roomful of balloons on the crowd), it became clear that this was about to be the most fascinatingly jarring musical transition since my fifth-grade talent-show group followed the six-year-old piano prodigy with our rendition of "Turtle Power."