Seeing Sam Amidon perform at Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday, I had no idea that the music he played wasn’t wholly his own until after the show. His set was built from folk standards, remastered to create something new. Normally, learning something like this changes my opinion of an artist, as it doesn’t really feel like they should get all of the attention and credit for their music. Not that I completely write them off, but it’s definitely a let down. But I didn’t feel disappointed when I realized that the performance I had just experienced was in part dependent on old folk standards. Somehow, the origin of the lyrics Amidon and his band sang didn’t quite matter as much as how they sang them. And he sang them as though he’d written them himself, deeply personal odes to a fading folk tradition.
At most shows, I’m a relatively easy audience member to please. I instantly connect to artists who perform and make you feel like they truly love and enjoy what they’re doing. When you feel the joy from the people up on the stage, that’s when you know you’re watching something special. At this show, I couldn’t help but to get that feeling from the band. The lyrics of the songs don’t really matter when you’re watching people perform something interesting. The folk standards are more of a vessel for the band to exhibit their talent than the meat of the experience.
Amidon traditional catalogue is shaped to a more modern bluesy rock/folk that’s infinitely more interesting and entertaining than someone standing up onstage with a banjo, performing a straight and faithful cover. Especially during the title track of the band’s new album, “Lily-O” (which he referred to as “the murder song”), Amidon’s inflection sets his voice apart from any other folk singer I’ve heard. Amidon released his first record of Irish traditional standards in 2001, and that Irish influence still comes through in his newest work. At times, he talks more than he actual sings, even muttering at times, but reaches higher and lower registers when necessary. The muttering gives the songs a bit of a haunting sound, especially considering the moody content of some of the songs, which narrate anything from walking in the woods to shooting groundhogs. Combined with the acoustic guitar or banjo or fiddle, it creates a beautiful sweeping ballad.
The band had its awkward moments, like many do live. A joke about Bruno Mars’ former role as drummer for the band started out funny and sarcastic and then several minutes later had gone on far, far too long. It concluded with Amidon pretending to play the fiddle horribly and then smoothly transitioning into the next song, wherein he played beautifully. However awkward and long the joke was, it reflects a bit of Amidon’s style; he mixes humor with some of the dark lyrics in the folk songs. It’s an interesting contrast: folk songs with a wink, almost. Toward the end of the show, Amidon announced that this tour was conveniently doubling as his book tour. At first, I thought this was also a joke, but the book is indeed real and was available at the merch table for purchase. It’s a small collection of Tweets (his or others’, I’m not sure) but proves that Amidon’s interests extend beyond that of creating and performing music.
Despite these minor distractions, Amidon’s show was one that was rewarding to experience. Not all artists sound as good live as their albums do, but listening to the album after seeing them live first, I much prefer the live version. Not that the recording isn’t good, it’s just that the live inflections in Amidon’s voice can’t be felt as completely in the album version. The live show sounded raw and imperfect, yet beautiful and uncomplicated. He’s touring throughout New England the rest of this month before heading to Europe in November. You can check out a performance with Bill Frisell on NPR’s World Cafe below.