Photo credit: Jeremy Schultz
Two weeks ago, the niece of a friend was killed, and my friend is working through how to respond. No one wants to forget what they’ve lost, she says. The trick is how to balance carrying on and holding on. To let the past shape us, but not rule us. It is this tension through which grief can will us to destroy, or encourage us to create.
What Jay Clifford has lost exactly, I don’t know; what I do know is that his songwriting is swollen with recollections of those people and things, cast in timeless melodies and shaped by a voice so astounding, it is almost a shock to hear. I know that his desire to share these experiences, both personal and communal, is what makes seeing him live feel something like a consciousness raising or a group therapy session. And I know that tonight, this feels overwhelming, and good.
Good, because if sadness is what inspired some of the songs, there are also plenty of odes to happiness, unions, births and regenerations of all types. Good, too, because the heavy things are lifted by Clifford’s good cheer. Declaring tonight’s show a democracy, Clifford asks audience members to call out what song they would like to hear next. He peppers this popular rule with numbers of his own choosing—new material that he models for us, like a chum trying something on for size. He also tells stories between the songs, cracks jokes for us, calls us his friends. It’s a coming together of friends, tonight. And it feels wholesome, and overwhelming, and good.
Jay Clifford is here without the other members of Jump, Little Children, his primary project, and Rosebud, another group he’s also associated with. Instead, as an opener, he has singer Marc Broussard in tow, a Southern-fried bluesman who bleats and browbeats through naked, wounded love songs. Broussard shakes us up, stomping manically to keep his rhythm, a supercharged spirit scratching away at his guitar in fits. His is the kind of music that makes lovers reach for one another, and they do, a gesture of together-foreverness, inspired by the incredible sentimentality of now.
When Broussard is done, we are amply warmed, and it is time for Jay Clifford, alone. Jay Clifford. Recorded, his singing is certainly dazzling but here, in person, it is positively jeweled. His voice, here in this room, is both achingly mortal and somehow superhuman—a thing of awe, a wonder-inspiring marvel at what man can do, producing the awareness that this is no ordinary man. When he sings, toes curl and hearts flutter, the room goes quiet and still with reverence; parts of us are dying, becoming more alive. The sound of him, here, is hyperreal; it triggers a tingle of adrenaline and serotonin and hormones, rushing, all at once, through our veins. When there are no words to describe something’s beauty, there should only be sound—and this would be it, Jay Clifford, singing.
The populist form of this show perpetuates this: the screaming college girls who people the majority demand the slow, crafted love songs, and Clifford delivers, with gladness. “Where She Lies”, “A Lover’s Greed”, and “15 Stories” among them, Clifford appreciates the suggestions, claiming their acrobatics might kill him, yet through each he more than survives, and it is we who experience beautiful death. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, that bittersweet ballad, gets a mobile and thoughtful rendition here; “Rains In Asia” and “All the Way to Mexico”, new songs, sound as familiar as old standbys.
Music can be thought of as a kind of aural journalism—an artifact which captures human transition, an expression through which experiences can live long after the immediacy of their origins has faded. If tragedy and hope, good times and bad, are the stuff of life, then Jay Clifford is a walking testament to the importance of living. He’s a gracious gift, a force that keeps creating, no matter what may come his way.