In the middle of his rendition of the traditional ballad “Pretty Fair Damsel,” Sam Amidon lets out an unearthly scream. His voice vibrates gratingly on the air for a long, shocking moment. Then, grimacing in mock concentration, he takes a halting, messy jazz solo on his acoustic guitar.
The crowd shifts nervously, unsure whether to laugh. There is palpable relief when Amidon returns to the chorus, strumming major chords and singing about true love. He has the endearing habit of letting his voice crack and waver out of tune, lending unusual intimacy to old songs.
It is a Tuesday night in early April at Club Passim in Harvard Square, and so far the show is completely living up to my expectations.
I had been a Sam Amidon fan since the release of his record All Is Well on the Bedroom Community label, in 2008. All Is Well was a moody re-imagining of ten American folk songs, with familiar melodies rendered nearly unrecognizable by modern classical composer Nico Muhly’s atmospheric orchestrations. Amidon’s follow-up record, I See the Sign, released in 2010 on Bedroom Community, was in much the same vein, with slightly sparer contributions from Muhly and lush percussion from drummer Shazad Isamaily.
In the past three years I somehow never managed to make it to one of Amidon’s concerts, so I was especially looking forward to the Club Passim show. I knew, of course, that a live performance would be nothing like the recordings, with their dense, multi-layered arrangements. I had also been informed—or warned, depending on who you ask—that Amidon was “crazy.”
Amidon’s reputation comes from the fact that his performances are self-consciously eccentric, a trait that would be unbearably pretentious if it wasn’t executed with such wit. At one point during the show, Amidon launches into his version of “Pretty Saro” from All Is Well, singing exactly one half-step above the key he is playing in. In characteristic fashion, he drags the moment on too long—and then, with an embarrassed chuckle, stops mid-syllable, and moves his capo up a fret. “I was playing in the wrong key!” he explains, and the audience roars. The moment is Steve Martin-esque in its absurdity, with all the elements of a classic comedy bit—except it relies on a bizarre and rather extraordinary musical skill.
If Amidon’s unusual take on American folk music upsets the die-hard traditionalists, it is not because he aims to offend. The fiddler turned avant-garde singer/songwriter is the progeny of Vermont folksingers Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, and even a cursory listen to their son’s recordings reveals that he is not trying to undermine or reject the music on which he was raised. The material on his albums, mined from folk music’s vast archives, is rearranged with exquisite beauty and delivered without a trace of irony.
No, Amidon is not simply trying to bewilder his audience—but what he is trying to accomplish is not entirely clear, either. Are his recordings a self-conscious bid to make traditional music relevant in the modern era? Could his stage antics be a pointed attempt to subvert a long-established reverence for tradition? Or is he just a weird guy who likes folk music?
I’m probably over-analyzing it. But Amidon said something that made me believe that, at least sometimes, he over-thinks his music as much as I do.
He was introducing the last song of the evening, a cover of R. Kelly’s “Relief” (one of two non-traditional songs on I See the Sign). When he first heard it, Amidon said, he was amazed that R. Kelly—“the Bob Dylan of our times”—had apparently written a song “that has absolutely no bearing on reality whatsoever.” The lyrics in question go like this:
What a relief to know that we are one
What a relief to know that the war is over
What a relief to know that there’s an angel in the sky
What a relief to know that love is still alive.
As time passed, some of the things in the song seemed to come true, at least for a while. “That’s when I realized R. Kelly was much more clever than I originally gave him credit for—he had actually written a song with a shifting relationship to reality over the course of time.”
Amidon paused, strumming his guitar thoughtfully as the titters in the crowd died down. For a moment, it seemed like he might leave it at that—with a wry remark that, like his performances, toed the line between the profound and the absurd.
Luckily, Sam Amidon has some sympathy for his audience.
He leaned into the mic. “And sometimes it just feels nice to sing those words.”