The Eerie Relief of Sam Amidon


“We’ll do an old murder ballad,” announces Sam Amidon with laconic good cheer, acknowledging our demand for an encore. It’s an early April Saturday night, and the tentative onset of spring buoys the collective heart of the respectfully silent crowd, who had regarded tonight’s opening act while sitting cross-legged on 92Y Tribeca’s concrete floor, since risen to their feet and buoyed further by the softly whimsical deadpan of Amidon himself. He cycles between acoustic guitar and dexterously plucked banjo, singing gentle and slightly eerie folk tunes of somewhat scrambled, Reality Hunger–esque origin (“They’re old songs that I found in different places—I changed them around some,” is the way he’s described an earlier record, 2007’s evocatively titled But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted) in a frail, bright, mournful voice, contrasting nicely with his occasionally loopy lyrical concerns (he plays the one about the falsehearted chicken), beyond-loopy stage banter (we’ll get to it), and taste for the odd R. Kelly cover.

Don’t worry. It’s a sweet, gorgeous, life-affirming, not-at-all-hokey R. Kelly cover. We’ll get to that, too. But let’s talk for a second about the old murder ballad.

“Wild Bill Jones” is a bluegrass staple—everyone from the Stanley Brothers to Alison Krauss has taken a hack at it. The narrator sees his true love out walking with Wild Bill Jones and shoots him, basically. (Shoots Wild Bill Jones, not the true love.) Whereas interpreters often opt for a pleasantly paradoxical peppiness about it at all, Amidon’s version is slow and funereal, ringing acoustic-guitar chords with plenty of space in between for silence, dread, regret. “So I drew a revolver from my side/And I shot at the poor boy’s soul,” he sings, in a pleasantly paradoxical warm monotone, his face blank. Another verse begins: “He rambled and he scrambled all along the ground/And he let out a dreadful moan.”

And then Amidon actually lets out a dreadful moan. More of a stabbing, high-pitched shriek, really, held for a truly disconcerting 30 seconds or so, his facial stoicism unchanged. Iiiiiieeeeewwwwwwwww. Legitimately terrifying. Some real Sunn O))) shit. Some people giggle, some people cringe. And when he runs out of breath, Amidon inhales again and continues right on with the song, nonplussed as ever.

It’s these bizarre little jolts that really get him over. Tonight, we are celebrating the release of I See the Sign, his second
record for Bedroom Community, the label run by Valgeir Sigurðsson and prominently featuring orchestral-wizard-to-the-indie-rock-stars Nico Muhly, who embellishes Amidon’s spare inclinations with frilly, elegant horn and string arrangements. As the CD booklet’s cheerfully erudite “Note to the Listener” (sample wisdom: “It would behoove you to listen to a lot more Sonny Rollins”) explains, several tracks are derived from “children’s singing-game songs” picked up by Bessie Jones in the Georgia Sea Islands, refashioned by Amidon into light frolics with the angelic-voiced Beth Orton. The mellow, lithe “Way Go, Lily” synthesizes all of this into the alarmingly lifelike specter of Nick Drake, though generally the results get to an even starker, weirder, more temporally disorienting place.

To that end, the 92Y Tribeca set begins with I See the Sign‘s title track, another respectfully scrambled traditional number, Amidon strumming his guitar forlornly alongside soft, insistent drums (a couple dudes, including opening act Thomas Bartlett, he of arch cabaret-pop purveyors Doveman, chip in on percussion, ghostly piano, burping electronics, and the like). The lyrics come in brief, surrealist snatches—”Sign in the fig tree,” “Loose horse in the valley,” “Two tall angels,” “Dark clouds arising”—Amidon attacking the first word of each phrase with an amateur’s zeal and an expert’s care. “Prodigal Son,” from 2008’s All Is Well, is another highlight: “I believe I’ll go back home,” he moans, “and acknowledge I’ve done wrong.” As the song intensifies, he takes a step back, crouches slightly, raises his hands as if trying to block out the spotlight, and holds there for a spell, a strange sort of supplicant vogue posture, a little creepy and a little endearing, just one more puzzle to work out.

And verily, as a rambling banterer, Amidon is world-class. Early on, he gets on the subject of jazz: “It’s the music where you have to have the brains. Really smart brains.” There’s a long recounting of his harried travails in a U.K. airport that ends, happily, with him on a plane, watching It’s Complicated. Even more labyrinthine is his spiel about falling asleep on his friend’s couch and dreaming that he’s asleep on his friend’s couch, except his pillow is a donkey that’ll bite his hand if he moves.

No one’s quite sure how to take any of this, but when he gets around to asking us to sing with him, we’re more than happy to oblige. He does so a couple times, actually: For “Way Go, Lily,” we chipped in the word sometimes, as in “Gotta roll with the hickory (sometimes)/Gotta roll with a shotgun (sometimes).” But the evening’s true zenith is his cover of R. Kelly’s “Relief.”

Now, R. Kelly covers are dangerous business: Too often, they’re toxically ironic, condescending, guilty-pleasure faux-slumming, attempting to parody someone already 10 steps ahead of anyone trying to mock him. Amidon, though, takes pains to let us know he’s sincere. “I thought R. Kelly had done something really amazing,” he explains. “He’d written a song that had no bearing on reality.”

“Relief,” indeed, is almost ludicrously optimistic, its chorus pairing the phrase “What a relief to know that” with somewhat dubious assertions: We are one, war is over, there’s an angel in the sky, love is still alive. To this end, as we help him sing the stirring, delicately crescendoing chorus at his insistence, Amidon offers a few quick asides:

What a relief to know that

We are one

What a relief to know that

War is over (that’s not true)

What a relief to know that

There’s an angel in the sky

(that’s debatably true)

What a relief to know that

Love is still alive

We all crack up, but we all somehow start to believe it, too. Goes without saying, of course, that we also demand an encore.