On any particular evening, there are 15-20 troubadours occupying some of the smaller stages in Melbourne, armed only with an acoustic guitar and a swag of emotional baggage. Some tip-toe up to the microphone and rattle out angsty little numbers, in between apologising to the audience for existing. Others dispense with the electronic amplification, and frightening the children at the back of the room with hollered exhortations for/against their man/woman/’the man’. Typically, they are rubbish. However, occasionally…
…but, let us begin from the beginning.
NORTHCOTE SOCIAL CLUB, MELBOURNE
The Two Bright Lakes label really has a lot going for them right now. Their roster is crammed with bands which inspire the “Oh yeah, I’ve heard they’re good” sentiment. Towards the top of the TBL hierarchy is Otouto, which after several years of training, I think I can pronounce correctly. Their brand of fractured, melodic pop doesn’t lend itself to humming their hits on the way home, but it does make for a cerebral and entertaining three quarters of an hour. As usual, Kishore Ryan (also of Kid Sam, Seagull, et cetera) comes armed with an array of drums/kitchenware and proceeds to do more with his kit than seems possible, all the while maintaining the impeccable posture of a Ghanaian water carrier. But the accolades should go to Hazel and Martha Brown (sharing synth/guitar/drum pad/vocal duties) for their intelligent use of rhythm and counterpoint; this ain’t no verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus outfit. They with their gentle explorations, they make a bold attempt to reclaim a descriptive word that was stolen in the 70’s by a set of long-haired, over-educated douchebags: progressive.
What drew many people to Sam Amidon’s music in the first place was the lush orchestration of wünderkind composer Nico Muhly. Along with Owen Pallett, Muhly is indie music’s arranger-to-the-stars, working with Grizzly Bear, Antony & the Johnsons and Björk, to name a few. Yet nowhere has Muhly been afforded free reign as on label-mate Sam Amidon’s two latest releases, much to Amidon’s (and the listener’s) benefit. This is what led to my trepidation in coming to this gig, as I suspected a semi-full room at the Northcote Social Club was unlikely to pay for the airfares of a twelve-piece orchestra. However, what it did pay for was jack-of-all-trades Chris Vatalaro who, in what seemed to be a theme for the evening, managed to play the drums in every way imaginable, bar ramming his sticks up his nose and sneezing. Musical partner-in-crime and -love Beth Orton also sung harmony for a couple of songs, including a cover of Big Star’s Thirteen, drawing a heightened response from the crowd.
Unlike the depressing, familiar scenes of the opening paragraph, Sam Amidon brought a humility and earnestness to his performance, allowing space for his folk songs (and an intensely enjoyable cover of R. Kelly’s Relief, replete with an audience singalong) to simply be songs; songs that have been around for over a hundred years and don’t need your help to stay relevant thank you very much. Emotional highpoints were not rendered by anything as obvious as an acoustic power chord or a tortured yelp, but rather Amidon found them in the fabric of these time-worn songs; on cuts such as Saro and Rain and Snow the structure was dictated not by the tyranny of a 4/4 bar but by Amidon’s cadences, allowing the melody to unfold like a conversation. The show was also tempered by some of the funniest on-stage banter I’ve ever seen, ranging from impromptu push-ups to a free-jazz violin solo, to a lengthy description of his forthcoming novel about Johnny Depp’s recording career, and murderous tendencies. On second thoughts though, you probably needed to be there…
The converse argument is that if the songs are able to stand up on their own, what does Sam Amidon bring to the table? As far as I can tell, the guy hasn’t lost a loved one in the war or been involved in some macabre murder plot. Maybe he herds sheep in his spare time, I don’t know. But what he does do is afford the songs a level of respect, which actually can be a rare thing in today’s post-alt-nu-dub-noise-electro-wave trends. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of those things but sometimes it is nice to hear something different; interestingly, that something different is an aesthetic which hasn’t changed for a very long time.