Thursday April 8, 2010

By JON POTTER

BRATTLEBORO -- Sam Amidon is at it again -- and that’s good news for music fans who like a little new frontier with their old-time.

In the follow-up to his much-heralded 2008 CD "All is Well," Amidon has done what the best artists do -- grow. And the fruits of that growth are evident in his very strong new CD "I See the Sign," a creative, confident and compelling effort.

"All is Well" was a breathtaking success. It garnered rave reviews from all over, including Rolling Stone, and had critics stretching for superlatives -- "sky-scrapingly great," "viscerally stunning, comforting, upsetting, entrancing," "a soaring butterfly of an album," "a precious gem of a record."

Since then, he’s been busy, touring on his own and with fellow musicians from the Bedroom Community collective, and recording "I See the Sign," which was released March 29 to a glowing barrage of positive reviews. Spin Magazine described it as "rustic mood music for watching distant super-novas explode."

On Sunday, the Brattleboro native comes home to perform at the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery, 139 Main St., at 7:30 p.m.

"It’ll be great. I’ll be nervous," said Amidon, who grew up in Brattleboro steeped in music thanks to his parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon.

What Sam Amidon did so brilliantly on "All is Well" he does again on "I See the Sign" -- take old-time songs to places they’ve never been, peeling them open to reveal moods, colors and sounds you never thought were in them.

"We call it recomposing. It’s probably not a great word for it," he said. "The words are one thing I never change. And the melodies I don’t change much. Everything else gets radically changed ... the chords, the rhythms."

That’s what Amidon did to such startling effect on "All is Well." He takes that to the next level on "I See the Sign." For all its other flourishes, "All is Well" still had Amidon’s vocals and guitar and banjo at their center. In "I See the Sign," his musical co-conspirators are much more prominent, equal partners in the recomposing of these old-time songs.

The end result is not overkill, but the successful work of an artist painting with bolder, more colorful brushstrokes.

"I think I was a little more confident putting myself into it," said Amidon. "I think I was just a little bit more confident about sculpting the whoole thing."

For that he deserves a lot of credit. Which he is quick to share.

"Everyone did such an amazing job," he said. "I think it worked beautifully."

Nico Muhly returns as a co-conspirator, not only with work on piano, celeste and harmonium, but also with his orchestrations for various combinations of strings, brass and woodwinds. The effect of orchestrated chamber-style music paired with the rootsy, organic work of the other musicians is breathtaking. The orchestrations are given a more prominent role in the new CD, and the result is chillingly beautiful.

"Nico’s stuff is so beautiful and crazy," said Amidon.

Chief among his other co-conspirators is Shahzad Ismaily, who shows up everywhere on the CD -- he plays drums, bass, percussion, guitars, mini-moog synthesizer and vocals and humming.

Amidon and Ismaily are old musical mates whose friendship was forged while trading lessons -- Amidon taught him banjo, and Ismaily taught guitar.

Amidon and Ismaily worked in the studio in Iceland with Valgeir Sigurdsson, putting down the basic tracks. Sigurdsson also contributed bass, percussion, moog and programming. Ben Frost kicked in on electric guitar, and Beth Orton adds a new element -- the stronger presence of backing vocals.

"I love her voice. She has so much character in her voice," said Amidon.

With those tracks down, Muhly created his orchestrations elsewhere. Then the two sets of sounds were fused together in the studio.

"There were basically these two things that when they were created had nothing to do with each other," said Amidon.

Deft work in the studio -- and keen musical intuition from all parties -- make it all work. "I See the Sign" is, if nothing else, an intriguing match of opposites -- orchestrated, academic music with the rootsy folk music of old-time oral traditions; ancient forms with hip, indie sensibilities; the simple with the multi-layered.

Whatever it is, people seem to like it. In all his touring, Amidon said he has never encountered an audience reluctant to embrace what he’s doing.

"I never have, and there’s no reason why that’s true, but it is. ... Maybe there are folkie purists who don’t like it, but very few people are against it," he said. "I think there might be people who don’t think of it as folk music. I’m OK with that."

Whatever it is, you should check it out. Ismaily is expected to join him for Sunday’s show at the Hooker-Dunham.

After that, Amidon is bound for Minneapolis for two shows with Muhly, before heading on the road with Muhly, Frost and Sigurdsson on what is being billed as the Whale Watching Tour, which will take them to Germany, Belgium, Ireland, England, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Sweden, Latvia and Iceland. In June, Amidon has a gig in Moscow.

Amidon, now 28, became known a teen throughout the U.S. folk scene as a fiddler, releasing five albums with his band Assembly. He eventually made his home in New York City, working with the experimental indie-rock bands Doveman and Stars Like Fleas. A frequent collaborator is another musicians with local roots, Thomas Bartlett.

Amidon had a starring role in the feature film, "American Wake," which had its premiere at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. He also draws comics and makes videos.

On Sunday, New Mexico singer/songwriter Cahalen Morrison opens. Morrion plays roots music on fingerstyle and flat-picked guitar, mandolin, clawhammer banjo and lap slide guitar. His latest CD is titled "Old-Timey & New-Fangled."

Tickets for this concert are $15 general, $13 for students and seniors. For reservations and information, call 802-254-9276.