Sam Amidon’s lonesome leap forward
PUTNEY -- Sam Amidon’s new CD, "Bright Sunny South" is anything but bright and sunny.
Lonesome, intimate and elegiac, "Bright Sunny South" takes the listener on an introspective odyssey through a spare but emotionally rich landscape. Far from a brooding, desolate collection, "Bright Sunny South" rises above its darkness with 11 songs of love, loss, heartache and sorrow, which manage to connect with the listener on the level of deep, spiritual kinship.
"Bright Sunny South" reflects Amidon’s continued growth as a musician and his distinct talent for what he calls "folk songs in different contexts."
As they have with his last three albums, the critics have taken notice. The Wall Street Journal said "Bright Sunny South" was "at once archaically rootsy and savvily refined." AllMusic wrote "’Bright Sunny South’ Š suggests (Amidon’s) development in its gorgeous production, increasingly deft arrangements, and a general sense of greater confidence and vision throughout the record."
Loaded with copies of his new album and an armload or two of instruments, the Brattleboro-born and raised 31-year-old musician returns home to perform a CD release show on Tuesday, June 18, at 7 p.m., at Next Stage, 15 Kimball Hill.
Amidon is eager, and a bit nervous, to share his music with his hometown friends.
"It’s always scary because I can’t put anything over on you guys," said Amidon in a phone interview last week from a tour stop in Seattle, Wash.
At Next Stage, Amidon will sing folk songs and accompany himself on banjo, guitar and fiddle. He will be joined by multi-instrumentalist Chris Vatalaro, who also played on the album. Alessi’s Ark opens.
Since 2007, Amidon has been steadily carving his niche by radically reworking the traditional folk songs he grew up with in a childhood immersed in music as the son of Peter and Mary Alice Amidon.
In Sam Amidon’s hands, aided by unique and surprising arrangements, those songs open themselves up and yield new, powerful meanings.
His last two CDs, "All is Well" and "I See the Sign," were both recorded in Iceland with producer Valgeir Sigursson and featured orchestrations by wonderkind American composer Nico Muhly.
"Bright Sunny South" is Amidon’s first for the Nonesuch label, and it also heralds a new approach -- or, more accurately, a return to an approach he used on his 2007 album "But This Chicken Proved Falshearted," but this time in the hands of a more seasoned, confident musician.
"The last two albums were so specifically that collaboration of Nico and Valgeir. I wanted to step outside of that and go back into that internal space," said Amidon. "In a way, it’s a more lonesome record, a more solitary-ish record."
Solitary-ish, but by no means a solitary endeavor. For "Bright Sunny South," Amidon, who calls London, England, home, sought out producer Jerry Boys, whose work with the Buena Vista Social Club and Ali Farka Toure he admired.
He also brought in old musical mates Vatalaro, Shahazad Ismaily and childhood Vermont friend and longtime co-conspirator Thomas Bartlett.
"For me, making it, the really fun thing is putting people together in a room and the tension of seeing what happens," said Amidon.
Serendipity certainly played a role during the five days spent in the recording studio. "Bright Sunny South" features a variety of moods and instrumentations, from the spare sound of guitar and vocals, to something that comes mighty close to progressive rock, with synthesizers, fuzzy electric guitars and heavy pounding drums. Amidon’s piano playing plays a prominent role, a flute makes an appearance, and for two songs, a trumpet adds a lonely-man-on-a street corner kind of feeling.
The inclusion of trumpet player Kenny Wheeler is a story in itself.
Amidon had long admired the playing of Wheeler, who had a long career in jazz and as a leading exponent of free improvisation. Wheeler had earned critical acclaim in the 1970s for his album "Angel Song" with Bill Frisell, Lee Konitz and Dave Holland. He also played with Eric Burdon and The Animals.
Amidon found out Wheeler was living in London and eventually worked up the courage to ask him to play on the album, fearful that the trumpet player, now 83, would decline or was already booked. "What’s the date?" was Wheeler’s reply. He showed up and played brilliantly, and his work serves the songs well.
Amidon’s artistic courage and inventiveness are evident in other ways on the CD. On "I Wish, I Wish," he had Bartlett, Ismaily and Vatalaro, all talented multi-instrumentalists, play "musical chairs" on piano, guitar and drums, and cut the final version with different configurations on each verse.
"As I Roved Out" features Amidon’s old-time banjo playing and gravelly, raspy shouted vocals, backed by a heavy, insistent drum beat that makes the whole thing seem primal and shamanistic.
"At a certain point, I was definitely ready to have a shout," said Amidon.
In a more direct homage to his roots, one of the songs on the CD, "Weeping Mary" is his version of a shape note hymn his parents recorded for Nonesuch with the Vermont-based Word of Mouth Chorus in 1977.
Throughout, there’s a prevailing sense of lonesomeness, introspection, remembered sorrow and sweetness tempered by the bittersweet.
Take for example, the title song, a traditional tune about a soldier going off to war which unfolds with more emotional depth and a searing sense of foreboding and heartsickness when sung against a backdrop of Amidon’s spare acoustic guitar riffs and an ethereal, eerie-sounding synthesizer part.
"My goal was to try and find the setting that best fit with the words," he said. "With some of these songs, the lyrics are so wise and internal and poetic Š It’s almost like little short stories."
Amidon’s innovative treatments of those stories are finding an increasingly receptive audience.
"In England, this whole thing of putting out folk songs with indie elements has become extremely common. Four years ago, I was having to explain what these songs were, but now I’m having to explain I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon," he said.
In the three years since his last album and this one, a lot has happened for Amidon. He and his spouse, fellow musician Beth Orton, have had a son, Arthur Amidon, now almost 2 and the apple not only of his parents’ eyes, but also of proud grandparents Peter and Mary Alice. He also spent much of last year touring in support of Orton’s album "Sugaring Season."
Tickets for the June 18 concert at Next Stage are $18 and $16 and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com and in person at Everyone’s Books on Elliot Street in Brattleboro.
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