BY JENNIFER KELLY
The Iron Horse stage is pretty close to bare on this frigid January night (Jan. 22). Just one chair sits in the middle of a scuffy black floor, with a mic and three guitars, still in cases, for company. Forget about the lush production of Damien Jurado’s latest Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son. This show was shaping up to be all about one man’s (and one woman’s) grappling with a guitar, a voice and a melody. No frills, no strings, no drums, not even a tambourine.
One person with a guitar can be pretty intense.
The show starts with Courtney Marie Andrews, who is girlish and charming and seems to be about 15 in her long-hair and bangs…until she starts playing. Then you realize that she is quite a good guitar player, in a fluid, overtone-haunted style that might remind you a little of James Blackshaw. She also has one of those old-style 1960s folk voices, high and clear and fluttering with vibrato at the top, but also with some interestingly bent blues notes in the mid-range and the occasional, striking drop-out for a dramatic whisper. There is nothing “freak” about this woman’s folk. She sings in a water-pure tone that recalls Judy Collins.
Andrews starts with a song called “It Keeps Going” from her self-released On My Page, a song whose soft melancholy refrain trills out out over cascades and eddies of guitar picking. She moves from there into “Woman of Many Colors,” the guitar grounded in the low thunk of fat strings, but circling effortlessly on the thin ones. It’s more gutsy and bluesy than the first song, but still full of fragility in the tremulous high notes that Andrews hits. She’s perfectly composed playing the guitar and singing, but she seems a little nervous in the interim as she shifts tunings and makes small talk about the cold weather, the plural of “moose” and the Yankees (which is always dangerous this close to Boston).
Her songs, though, are all originals, steeped in folk tradition but sharp with what seems like personal observation and experience. “Irene” includes the mournful line, “Sometimes good people draw troublesome thing,” while “Honesty” confides, “Just when you have it all figured out/Life throws you another doubt.” The lines scan beautifully with the melodies, and the guitar playing fits into the moods and crevices of each song. Andrews is altogether impressive as a player, a singer and a writer, and when Jurado later calls her his “favorite living artist,” it’s less hyperbolic than it sounds.
One good thing about guy-with-a-stool concerts. There’s very little set-up between artists.
Consequently it is not too much longer – and not much after 9:30 p.m. – when Damien Jurado sits down at the lone chair, fiddles with the plug in his guitar and begins singing. Lots of artists have struggled over how to reproduce album sound by themselves or with limited backing. Jurado just tosses the whole problem aside and begins strumming “Magic Number” the first song off his extraordinary new album.
I can’t say I don’t miss the sleek sweeps of strings, the brass blasts full of overhanging menace, the occasional explosive drum fill, but I miss them for about a minute and a half. Very quickly, the song takes over, even its barest iteration filling the room with shadowy, minor-key mystery.
And then Jurado dispels the mystery. He spends maybe the next five minutes explaining the backstory to both Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son and Maraqopa. Both, he said, sprang out of a dream he had in 2010, where he was someone famous (“Justin Timberlake famous” he said) who left the world and stumbled onto a sci-fi hippie colony named Maraqopa. It’s a weird blend of futurism and 1960s idealism and religious cult. The people live in geodesic domes. His character leaves the colony and immediately gets into a car accident, and this is where his last album Maraqopa ends. Brothers and Sisters picks up with the character surviving the car accident unscathed and returning to Maraqopa, where he becomes a messenger/interpreter for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Who is arriving by spaceship, incidentally. I am paraphrasing, but that’s the gist.
Jurado says he usually doesn’t talk this much at shows, but he’s been giving so many interviews about this that he felt like his fans should know, too. And then he heads back into the music, which is still cryptic, but a bit less so. He sings haunting “Jericho,” the buoyant, strummy “Silver Timothy,” thoughtful, baroque-guitar-shaded “Silver Malcolm” and then passes a little deeper into the catalogue for “Nothing is the News” from Maraqopa and “Cloudy Shoes” from Saint Bartlett. So far, all from his Richard Swift produced triptych. He observes that it is 17 years to the day since his first record came out on Sub Pop, and admits that “Out of that 17 year period, I spent maybe 15 years not knowing what I was doing.”
And, while the run from Saint Bartlett through Brothers and Sisters is certainly impressive, he spends the next part of his set proving that statement wrong, digging out old, simple folk-oriented songs that are no less beautiful, no less touching than his current catalogue.
With a feathery guitar line, “Denton, TX” from Now I’m in Your Shadow drifts into focus, its sensible, linear lyrics (“She makes hotel beds where the sidewalk ends”) eliciting plainspoken melancholy. “I Am Still Here” from the same 2006 album follows, and after it, reaching back even further, he plays “Abilene” from 2003’s Where Shall You Take Me. They are songs about thwarted love, blighted hope and being left behind, at once completely separate from Jurado’s current work, and intimately linked. At the end of this section of the show, just to prove that it’s all the same stuff, really, he segues to folky, muted “Silver Joy” from Brothers and Sisters, with its plaintive line “Be sure and wake me when eternity begins.”
Jurado closes with “Working Title” from Saint Bartlett, clearly enjoying himself as he demonstrates exactly why he’s Damien Jurado and no one else is. “Can any of you guys sing this high?” he asks, slipping into the beyond-falsetto, whistling mournfulness that has made his songs eerie from the start. A few in the audience attempt it, and Jurado says, “Nooooooo.” As the audience continues to attempt to sing along, he breaks into a grin and stops. “You guys are ruining the song.” But he says it with such good humor and he adds a few tips here and there (“There’s a little bend in that note.” And “Now, softly, softly”) that you know he doesn’t mind. One guy with a guitar, sure, but he’s got the whole room in the palm of his hand.