Photo credit: Jason King
I have this great housesitting gig in the middle of nowhere. But, unfortunately, the rural isolation inflames my latent misanthropy. Silence is addictive, as are country skies at night and the almost post-apocalyptic absence of other humans. Don’t get me wrong, I love people—in shot glass doses. I tell you this only because during my time in the country, not even public orgies can drag me from my recluse fortress. Catching a live show from Matt the Electrician is one of the few, notable exceptions to that rule.
3 Jul 2003: The Cactus Café Austin, Texas
Despite the packed crowd, Matt still managed to keep a dorm room intimacy about the show, sharing anecdotes and speaking to a couple hundred people as if we were all just drinking chums swapping yarns. With any other singer-songwriter I would find this recurrent banter an awful intrusion, like being trapped with an old person who refuses to stop laundry-listing the gruesome failures of his death’s door body. But Matt is a songwriter for whom convention has little place; consequently his roughshod approach to performance is part of his impish charm. He’d probably also get away with less if he didn’t have such an incredible voice, sweet with depth but always pushed to a fray, which gives his songs this breaking beauty that catches in your throat and at the top of your stomach.
Seeing musicians that you love is always better in the full-on hum of a standing room throng. Most artists’ egos are thinner than paper placemats, and I can imagine that nothing cuts quite like playing to a crowd that could comfortably lay on top of you. This night Matt seemed wholly energized by the wall-to-wall fans, belting out the pop mastery of his latest album, Made for Working, like he was discovering the songs for the first time. One of Matt’s greatest achievements as an artist is his ability to consistently use humor as an emotional device without sacrificing the songs’ craftsmanship. Matt is inarguably hilarious, but it’s a sense of humor that, unlike many other snarky songwriters, doesn’t evaporate upon repeated listens.
It was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. “These Boots” is still one of the most humbly beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard, teetering on the edge of country balladry in its live incarnation. “Diaryland” sounded like a jook joint hoedown. Matt then switched genres and strapped on his banjolele (a hybrid equal parts Django Reinhardt and Mattel) to belt out the sweet ode for his daughter “Little Hands” and the old timey “Train”, which has a wonderfully unhinged momentum to it. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Matt performs with back up vocalist, Seela, a woman whose pipes are jaw-dropping, quasi-human even. When she stepped up to mic to howl out “Sunny Side of the Street”, it was like listening to Billie Holiday smolder in some clapboard swamp pub. Not to mention she and Matt have the best stage rapport, full of subtle, catting bitchery that borders on affection. Matt ended the first set with a cover of the Ed’s Redeeming Qualities song, “Lawn Darts”, a litany of sad accidents involving children that you can’t help but laugh at. It was a fitting closer: flippant irony embedded in pitch perfect pop.
It’s very rare that I leave a show joyful to be alive. Even some of the bands I most admire fail to fill me with the same sense of smart-assed upliftment that I glean from seeing Matt the Electrician play. It’s an odd joy that an asshole like myself is continually unsettled by. If singer-songwriting was like Robot Wars, Matt the Electrician could wipe the floor with Conor Oberst, Cass McCombs and Ben Lee. But it’s not, so I’ll have to content myself with living in the home city of a great unknown.