Zac Little is a musical curator, a very nuanced one at that. This is evident during his band Saintseneca’s record release performance at the Black Box on Mershon Stage—an intimate, standing-room-only backstage performance decorated with the new album’s artwork and dimly-lit industrial lights hanging above the crowd. “Pillar of Na,” Saintseneca’s fourth LP release, features obvious growth in the band as a unit. Each song, instrument and stage change was executed with such grace, putting off fleeting emotions of ecstasy and nirvana.
Little—the scientist behind acclaimed Columbus folk band Saintseneca—has lived through lineup changes and instrument juggling since the band’s 2007 inception, barely missing a stride whenever its naturally time to part ways. His ability to convey emotions through unconventional tools and a voiced plucked fresh from heaven’s gardens has built a continued sense of awe that has followed Saintseneca. At this point in his career, Little has assumed rightful comparisons to widely-respected indie giant Justin Vernon.
The ever-popular Wisconsin swooner has swept the Pitchfork youth off of its feet with Bon Iver’s modern big band vibe. Over the past decade-plus, Vernon has continued to expand his sound; he’s made sizable contributions to hip-hop, basically recreated the saxophone on “22, A Million” and most recently teamed up with The National’s Aaron Dessner for “Big Red Machine.” Little has also been making music with Saintseneca for almost just as long. National praise has also come for the band, but nowhere near as widespread as Bon Iver. To Little, someone who has questioned what he is doing at points throughout his career, Bon Iver’s success may leave him thinking that there’s just no room for Saintseneca.
But of course there is.
For a band that has expanded on its vision and sound with each subsequent release, Saintseneca sure is hitting on all sorts of styles on “Pillar of Na.” When Little took the stage with bandmates Caeleigh Featherstone, Steve Ciolek, Jon Meador and Matthew O'Conke to put some of these songs to test for the first time live, the result was effortless, intricate and precise. Little is notoriously known for being the latter of the three, and it showed at the album release. Whether Ciolek was engineering sounds at Saintseneca’s helm or Featherstone weaving her commanding voice into controlled instrumental chaos, each part was being played perfectly like they would be punished for missing a step.
Most of the songs on “Pillar of Na” are packed into three-and-a-half-minute arrangements, each bleeding with a different texture. The band’s performance and live debut of many of the tracks in was living proof of that, as instruments and bandmates were switched out, all coming together at times while at others being stripped of everything except Little’s raw voice. “Feverer” drips with the psychedelic folk of Jeff Mangum, while the technical plucking and hymnal harmonizing on “Beast in the Garden” sounds like an instrumental Sampha could float over. Hell, even “Moon Barks at the Dog” channels some “Tell Me I’m Pretty”-era Cage The Elephant.
And when Saintseneca delivered these songs at Mershon Auditorium they did so with impeccable precision. However, it wasn’t a song off of “Pillar of Na” that encapsulated Little’s deeper exploration into music. Little’s solo performance of “How Many Blankets Are In The World?”—a scene that saw the stage swept of everything except Little and his career—put on display that raw cry he uses to best convey emotions in Saintseneca’s world. Asking this impossible question can also serve as an answer to any hesitation Little may have about his career at a point where he’s over 10 years in because it’s one that’s impossible to answer yet futile to worry about.
The intimate setting Saintseneca chose for their homecoming show proves that they don’t need to be on a Bon Iver level to make Bon Iver-quality music. “Pillar of Na” is Saintseneca’s most impressive showcase of just that, and the album’s closing track of the same title—a nine-minute excursion aided by a flute, Little’s vibrato vocals and precise plucking—was one of the many performances at the Mershon Stage that showed how impressive it was for Saintseneca to move as one unit. About three minutes in, convention is thrown out the window as the tempo flares up; it appears as if the band has been awoken from a winter-long slumber. At this point everyone—even an additional musician—is on the stage, a stark contrast from “How Many Blankets Are In The World?” Emotions are still flooding, a perfect marker for a scientist that his experiments are working.