When I wrote about Sam Amidon’s rendition of “Wild Bill Jones” for PopMatters, I emphasized how sobering and mournful the violence in his version was; when I saw him play the same song early this September in the cozy confines of the Drake Hotel’s basement venue, I laughed hard enough that I felt like I should apologize to Sam after the show. This time, Amidon followed up the lines “He rambled and he scrambled all along the ground / And he let out a dreadful moan” with a kind of low atonal screech that (via impressive breath control) lasted long enough that it went from harrowing to melodramatic to almost embarrassing to hilarious to kind of physically unpleasant. As well-wrought and finely tuned as Amidon’s albums are, his live show is best summed up by his reaction to my apology: any reaction to the show is a good one, as long as you’re reacting.
Live, Sam has an almost pathological aversion to playing things safe and conventional, and while for the most part his stage presence is a kind of beatific Buster Keaton deadpan, his desire to evoke that reaction remains almost palpable. I tend to resist crowd participation and other forms of enforced fun (it reminds me of summer camp), but when Amidon inserts a simultaneously dorky and stirring acoustic guitar solo into the middle of the gorgeous “Pretty Fair Damsel” and thanks us for “going on that journey with [him]” once it’s done, or he decides to end another song by doing pushups during the last verse, or introduces a few songs with rambling, funny, occasionally poignant anecdotes that nearly beat master raconteur John Darnielle at his own game, the constraints of the usual performer/audience relationship are messed with enough that joining in with the crowd’s (beautiful) call-and-response vocals on “Johanna the Row-di,” “Way Go, Lily,” and R. Kelly’s “Relief” isn’t something I have to be browbeaten into. It helps that much of Amidon’s material is, unlike most modern musicians, songs that are intended for groups of relatively untrained singers.
But while the way Amidon’s performance is funny and engaging and even at times a subtle provocation aimed firmly at getting the audience to do more than just sit there watching someone sing songs, that doesn’t mean that the material is lacking. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar or banjo, Amidon ably shows that, as great as the complex, gorgeous arrangements on his albums are, they’re not necessary for these songs to be stunning. There’s a reason people have been singing “Prodigal Son” and “Wedding Dress” and “I See the Sign” and “Climbing High Mountains” for a long time, and presented in their most basic form the songs resonate enough to hope that they’ll keep being sung for a long time to come. While Amidon’s performance keeps disrupting the comfortable remove of the crowd, he never gets in the way of the songs (even when he’s shrieking in the middle of a murder ballad) and the result was a show that, like Amidon’s albums, was a potent and compelling mix of old and new, of sincerity and playfulness. And also like Sam’s albums, it’s among the best music being made anywhere right now.