It’s a family affair: the show at the Iron Horse included Wes Hartley and the Tall Trees.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY JENNIFER KELLY
“All music is folk music,” Sam Amidon says, midway through a stripped down, unaccompanied set of plaintive shape note hymns, shaded in intriguingly modern ways. He goes so far as to include Gangstarr in the “folk music” category, since rap is, obviously, a music of the people, but he might as well be making room for his own very traditional, but also not, form of folk music, which finds doubt and ambiguity between the notes of even the most righteous of sacred harp certainties.
Amidon is playing at the Iron Horse in Northampton, just a stone’s throw from the southern Vermont community where he first learned to sing (and play guitar, banjo and fiddle) at sacred harp gatherings. His father and mother, still active in local singing groups, are in the audience this evening, and it turns out that 1936 Gibson Amidon is playing (and which has beautiful, luminous tone) belongs to his father. His regular guitar has a hole in it, courtesy of the TSA, who put the capo under the body of the guitar in its case after inspecting it.
Amidon is travelling with the Texas-via-Portland, Maine songwriter Wes Hartley, and his three-person “Tall Trees, “ who have between them, one guitar, one drum kit, one lap steel guitar, two truckers hats, two beards and three mustaches. Hartley is in mid-set when I arrive, in full country waltz swing, the twang of pedal steel giving way, from time to time, for a more rocking jangle. I’m off to the side, and I’m not sure the vocals are loud enough anyway, but for whatever reason, I can’t seem to make sense of the lyrics, which seem abstract and surreal, given the plainspoken musical backing.
Wes and the Trees play a short set. It’s barely 7:30 when Amidon saunters on the stage and begins tuning, by ear, warming up with jazz-tinged guitar passage, fast and pizzicato and full of big octave leaps, which resolves, after a while, into “Short Life of Trouble.” He follows with “I See the Sign,” the song’s shimmering surface pocked with sudden sharp edges. His voice frays and wavers in in the long notes, mournful and a little harsh, full of shadowy jazz-and-blues subtext and trailing off like a train whistle in the country. For “Way Go Lily,” Amidon enlists the crowd to sing a melancholy response to his call, a single word “sometime” and it occurs to me that we are all standing in (badly) for Beth Orton.
Amidon is all by himself up there, accompanied only by guitar (then banjo and finally with a violin), so the songs are much less intricate than on post-modern #I See the Sign# or jazz-slanted #Bright Sunny South#. Yet in the place of complexity, there’s a lovely mournful communion in songs that, even scrubbed bare, are not quite as simple as they seem. You hardly miss the trumpet when Amidon plays “Bright Sunny South,” even if it was one of your favorite things on the last album. The banjo scramble of “As I Roved Out,” feels rawer, harder, more shaded by death than on the album.
Not that Amidon isn’t an entertaining guy, capable of a goofy summary of his novel-in-progress about the gangster King Speechy and his army of 1970s hit penning songwriters, or a bemused account of his morning in Toronto, when, in a drugstore to buy a toothbrush he happens on a free barbeque and feels weirdly guilty when he’s not hungry enough to partake. He has just played a show with Volcano Choir and confides that the drummer, Jon Mueller, looks just like Christopher Walken, “And he plays the drums like Christopher Walken would, if he played the drums,” he adds, and everyone laughs.
There are some secular moments – a long quotation from Gangstarr, the cover of Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” – but the show, like Amidon’s records, is strongly rooted in sacred harp. He mentions that local rocker-and-shape-note expert Tim Eriksen taught him “How Come that Blood,” and calls one set of songs the “liturgical portion of the show.” Yet he also plays some jittery, staccato, not-very-folkish runs on the guitar, working the rhythms hard and smoothing the tension not at all. There’s one interval that sounds like a vocal exercise gone slightly feral, Amidon trying out wordless yelps and howls and falsetto yowls, as he strums frantically on guitar. He finishes the main portion of the set and comes back almost immediately with a violin to play two more songs. He starts one in the wrong key, too high, and struggles through a few bars before stopping and starting again.
It’s all very laid-back and warm, this performance, but glowing with eccentricity’s inner light. It’s music for the people, folk music, but filtered through a particularly modern sensibility, with a dappling of shadow and doubt on it.