Singer, guitarist, fiddler, banjo player, Sam Amidon’s family background is one of music, song, dance and storytelling, all themes which find themselves on his sixth studio album, Lily-O. It was originally conceived as a improvisational project together with jazz guitar player Bill Frisell. Through its development, the record has become a patchwork of traditional and contemporary songs, delivered with passion and dedication.
With lyrics and ideas collected from a variety of sources, Amidon has paired with Frisell’s guitar (they first met when Amidon was a teenager in the late 1990s), along with Shahzad Ismaily’s bass and Chris Varalaro on drums and electronics. The production of the set took place in Reykjavik, with Valgeir Sigurðsson at the helm. The adventure sees Amidon and band record fully live, in a successful attempt at playing in an intimate, ‘real’ setting, without either artifice of overdubs. Amidon’s voice lies at the heart of the compositions, sometimes powerful, sometimes wavering, but always fitting and measured.
“Walkin’ Boss” is a bright, open start –- full of strident banjo and percussion which rolls along to fit the theme and idea of the song. Amidon’s voice starts off feeling quite raw as he feels his way around the words – a description of industrial life. The ringing electric guitar already reflects the live feel of the recording, with the arrangement working brilliantly, with a rock edge leading the tradition in new directions, and Amidon’s music lending it a new focus.
“Down the Line” continues the idea of a patchwork, with passages of layered guitar and drums creating windows into the song, the story and the recording process. Flashes of music and story move by, with Amidon’s voice fading in and out of the mix. The end result is strange, odd, and utterly beguiling.
“Blue Mountains” is soft and beautiful as it draws you in, before it widens and evolves through vocatives and fiddle. A tale of love, territorial expansion, travel and adjusting to new lives is all wrapped up in a localized description. A classic traditional story, given a very modern setting.
Some moments are more lighthearted, for example the banjo led “Pat Do This, Pat Do That”, which blossoms into being via more guitar and drums. It is an undeniable pleasure to listen as the track builds and takes in other elements –- as it becomes more than when it begins, much in the way the album does as a whole. The title track is a highlight –- a new and decidedly different take on a story known in British versions as the Cruel Brother. The delicacy and difficulty of the story – a tale of jealousy and murder — is treated almost as if a dream, resulting in a thing of beauty and wonder, bold and strong.
“Groundhog Variations” is perhaps the oddest moment of the album –- complete with shades of almost jazz-like improvisational feeling, but the singer and his band carry it off. Amidon obviously wants to do his own thing, can do his own thing, and always knows what he is doing. “Won’t Turn Back” and “Your Lone Journey” are both glorious, tender and evocative, equally strong and fulsome tributes. “Devotion” is carried off with aplomb, proving further that Amidon can turn his hand to many different types of song and setting. He is able to get inside songs, and his songs get inside you, with love, tenderness and emotion.
Amidon is on tour in the US and Europe at the moment, joined on selected dates by Frisell and Ismaily.