Somebody yell Judas, because Sam Amidon has gone electric.
Or at least that was my first reaction to How Come That Blood, the opening track to Amidon's second album I See the Sign. Shahzad Ismaily lays down a funky bass over spiderwebs of plucked strings and light percussion. Amidon's voice drones out in its typically droll manner, uninflected and bold. Though All is Well, Amidon's brilliant debut, was not acoustic by any means, this is a much greater leap away from a characteristically folk sound. It's dense in a way that his first album was not--what Muhly's orchestrations and Valgeir Sigurðsson's production achieved on that album was the illusion of a natural, even primeval, acoustic space. The comparison to Bob Dylan is apt; I See the Sign, on first glance, seems to be a departure from Amidon's previous work, but upon closer examination is simply a continuation of his musical direction.
But that electric sound was worlds away from Amidon's show Wednesday night at the Mercury Lounge, which was simpler, and significantly more elemental, than All is Well. We were presented with the bare bones of Amidon's musical abilities: him playing acoustic guitar or banjo, Ismaily accompanying on electric guitar and drums. The sound was light and free, unadorned compared to the deliberate layering of the albums. How Come That Blood became a completely different song, emphasizing Amidon's deft banjo and his upbeat pluck. Amidon and Ismaily played eleven songs off of both albums in a variety of folk styles, running the gamut from bluegrass to Sacred Harp-inflected old Christian tunes.
What's remarkable about Amidon's talent, especially given his age, is not just his ability to draw upon the rich American tradition of folk music. It's that he seamlessly blends that gift of recalling a distant, imaginary past with a sense of playful experimentation---avant-garde antics not just thrown into the mix, but integrated with the folk sound. His set demonstrated his full musical journey: learning murder ballads and Sacred Harp songs as a child, rebelling and learning free jazz as a teen, and as an adult re-discovering the hidden power of that well of tradition that is the American folk. Amidon's bizarre vocal screech, which appeared suddenly in the middle of low-key songs like I Saw the Sign, is an emblem of that experimental sound; his voice echoes a kind of electric distortion, foreign from the sound of folk music but befitting its style. His strange little anecdotes told between songs, which once turned into brief instrumental free jazz interlude as he shredded on his banjo, were more Beckett than Woody Guthrie. And the hypnotic gesture he made at the end of Prodigal Son, a strange and distant pose, suggested both liturgical dance and Merce Cunningham's fierce choreography. It was perfectly in line with the lyrics: "I believe I'll go back home/acknowledge I've done wrong." Ismaily's methodically beating drum made it appear that Amidon was cowering, the prodigal son fearing his father's wrath.
Each song was a highlight unto its own, with no low moments. In a cute touch, Ismaily scatted Muhly's string arrangements in Saro, accompanying Amidon's clean, plain, and delightful singing. Rain and Snow showed off Amidon's vocal talents the best, combining their natural and artificial elements into a ballad of restrained anger. One tune I didn't recognize, which began with "As I rode down on a cold winter's night,"was imbued it with an ancient twang, with Amidon wailing "I" as a holler from the past (think Soggy Bottom Boys and I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow). Satchel, one of my favorites off of All is Well, lost a bit without Muhly's arrangements but Amidon reveled in its crafted purity, playing it fast and loose.
Amidon most blatantly draws upon his roots in Kedron, one of the Sacred Harp hymns sung by his parents on the Word of Mouth Chorus album (which I highly recommend). His plaintive cry of "Come and mourn with me," was accompanied by a light dusting of electric guitar courtesy of Ismaily, a radically different style from that of his parents, but one which fits the spirit of the music. Ryan Sawyer, who goes by Lone Wolf, joined the duo on percussion for the final two songs. Pretty Fair Damsel formed another one of Amidon's bridges between folk and free jazz, matching that wonderfully anonymous dialogue present in so many ballads (in this case describing a woman retaining her faith to a man off at war) with an instrumental chaos worth of John Zorn (Ismaily has played with Zorn in the past). The final number combined Climbing High Mountains and What a Relief, both songs lighthearted and optimistic, the latter a joyful singalong. "What a relief," became an ennobling mantra, the oddity of an old-time tune repeated by a swath of hipsters on the Lower East Side.
The opening act, Partyface (featuring Ismaily and a female singer whose name I can't seem to find), was a little bit entrancing and a little bit frustrating. The difficult acoustics of the venue were most apparent in their short set; the singer's voice seemed to lose its sweetness in the amplification, and Ismaily's vocal backups disappeared as well. Her cool vibrato and low key guitar played off nicely with lyrics which tended towards the bitter and acerbic. Their best song, Violence (dedicated to "the intoxicating beauty of the oil spill"), curved from bleak to hopeful, and I lost myself in their sound. But often the music sounded scrappy and unplanned, and Amidon's well-rehearsed set was a breath of fresh air.