Sam Amidon & Otouto, Melbourne 2012 – Live review

BY B ON JAN 23 2012, 11:00AM

Sam Amidon & Otouto
Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
Thursday 19 January 2012

Two years on from the release of their debut album, Otouto are heavily weighting their 2012 live set toward new material. The directions are promising, somehow pushing everything further at once: more rhythmic, more intricate, lyrics, vocals, harmonies, melodies, more synths. And yet more space too—how is that possible, with all of this going on? The only thing there seems to be less of is guitar—but this is no surprise. The (always) spare use of that instrument in Otouto seemed like a vestigial remainder of the ties to an indie rock tradition and to Hazel Brown’s solo beginnings. Whereas, now, the electronic and hip-hop inspirations have largely cast the guitar aside beyond its use for bottom end. Ping-ponging vocal melodies between Martha and Hazel Brown sound great in the second half of the set, even as the band endure technical glitches, out-of-tune keyboards and forgotten lyrics. The fussy, neurotic pleasures of Otouto’s arrangements—including Kishore Ryan’s inventive drumming—seem to have become more satisfying in these new clothes.

Sam Amidon puts down his guitar, drops to the floor in front of his only accompanist—and does ten push-ups. Far from being what one might expect from this calm-voiced archivist and revivalist of desperate old folk songs, Amidon is a playful stage performer. Amidon’s parents are musical and performance teachers, which explains some of Amidon’s flair. Musical athletics and folk sensibility also brushed up against the comedic streak suggested by his Twitter account. He plays songs with due seriousness and care, but reverence ends whenever the guitar or banjo playing does.

The gig takes on a jubilant, exciting air, even as he sings songs of individual and collective woe, pulled out of centuries and centuries of material: from old American immigrant songs to Irish folk songs about politics in Derry to R. Kelly. The audience is entreated to join in on a few singalongs and, at least in the encore, indulges itself in some two-part clapping accompaniment to Amidon’s improv fiddle number. Goodnatured. While Amidon performs, he watches the audience with a keen eye. He seems to feed off and back into it—perhaps the eager participation can be credited to this. Earlier, the audience sang softly throughout “Way Go Lily” from his most recent LP, marking a tender point in the set, even as it followed that burst of manly push ups from Amidon and an equally energetic drum solo from Chris Vatalaro.

Vatalaro was the foil to all of Amdion’s antics. Sat before a drum kit, a laptop, a keyboard and a bass guitar, Vatalaro filled in the texture and detail familiar from Amidon’s LPs. The landscaping work here was done on those recordings by Amidon’s regular collaborator, Nico Muhly, a respected composer in his own right. Vatalaro divided his time evenly between the instruments, sometimes switching between them all in the space of a song. His drumming was prominent, thundering in during the first song of the set—the title track of 2010’s I See the Sign—with the flourish and force of a free-jazz player. If Amidon’s eye was always on the audience, Vatalaro kept his trained on Amidon, finding unorthodox patterns and melodies to fit around the otherwise bareboned folk songs.

Amidon appears in Melbourne tonight as a sideline to his role in supporting Beth Orton on her national tour. At one point, he sees Orton walking near the bar and asks her onstage. This seems impromptu—although the second vocal mic set up onstage is cause for suspicion. They do a run-through of “Johanna Row-di,” as well as Big Star’s “Thirteen”. Not all vocalists work well in duet or backing mode. Orton’s distinctively mellow but searching voice makes her better suited to starring roles—here she wants to slip outside the duet role and find new approaches to the obvious harmony. Amidon, at least in live performance, is also a vocalist who searches for the unexpected note. Their criss-crossing lines—so effective on their own—seem to drift out of phase, cancelling each other out.

But the rambling duet seemed of a piece with Amidon’s musicmaking: alongside Vatalaro’s oftentimes wild drumming, Amidon’s current predilection for ringing a rough, curdled edge around his voice and the performative antics, Amidon unsettled anyone’s expectations of a comforting folk gig. Amidon may be a traditionalist in many ways, but he also wants to escape easy categorisation.

-Ben Gook

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